By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006
The owners of the Washington Nationals plan to spend at least $30 million to improve the city-financed ballpark under construction on the Southeast waterfront, according to Mark Lerner, son of principal owner Theodore N. Lerner. In addition, after the park opens, the Lerner family plans to spend "millions more each season to develop the park's personality," Mark Lerner said.
Lerner said the family will improve the main scoreboard and "get it to HDTV-quality," double the size of the outfield restaurant and place "an LED display on top of it," and increase the size of the board that shows scores of other baseball games. Club-level suites will get sliding-glass windows and bathrooms, Lerner said.
"We hope there'll be something for everybody," said Lerner, who has spent much of the last year visiting ballparks all over the country. "You constantly get ideas. We're putting red seats with tables in front of the restaurant in center field. There's a way to get flip-flop boards for the hitter's background so that you can advertise between innings like they do in San Francisco."
Lerner emphasized in an interview yesterday that the family's plans for the new park are constantly changing and its internal estimates of the final costs have increased dramatically. The Lerners paid $450 million for the team. The city has approved $611 million for the stadium project.
The D.C. Sports Commission is aware of $10 million in Lerner-financed stadium improvements, including the restaurant expansion that will cost $2.5 million and the club-level suite changes that will cost $2.4 million, according to commission spokesman Tony Robinson. Lerner said that, as additional projects arise, the family might pay more than $35 million in adjustments. A D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission source, who asked not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the stadium issue, said a $30 million estimate for all of the improvements Lerner has mentioned is "not unrealistic." The upgrade to the main scoreboard could cost as much as $7 million alone.
City officials on both sides of the lengthy battle over spending public funds to build the stadium called the Lerner family's plan to spend additional money a positive move.
"It's good. I'm glad to hear it. It makes a nicer stadium," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a stadium supporter.
He said that it was appropriate for the Lerners to pay for enhancements to the scoreboard and the suites. Stadium opponent David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the Lerners' decision to "reach into their pockets" was a victory for the council, which put in place a cap on spending.
"Essentially what they're trying to minimize is cost overruns, and that makes me happy," Catania said.
The Lerners don't claim they are giving any holiday gifts to the District. All the improvements will position the family to increase its profits from the ballpark, which is scheduled to open for the 2008 season. For example, in new stadiums -- such as the one built in Atlanta that was overseen by Stan Kasten, now the Nationals' president -- teams are able to charge higher fees to advertisers if their scoreboard's picture quality is better. An LED display above the outfield restaurant would provide state-of-the-art opportunities for sponsor signage. "If the LED ends up in the shape of a baseball, and we haven't decided if it will yet, its appearance could change every day," Lerner said.
Whatever the actual eventual cost to the team's owners, the Lerners have been able to focus on additional expenditures in part because the ballpark's construction has gone smoothly while remaining on budget. Also, the Nationals' payroll for 2007 has been reduced by more than $20 million since outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who earned $10 million last year, was not re-signed, and the Seattle Mariners assumed $12 million of second baseman Jose Vidro's contract in a recent trade.
The team's ownership believes that spending on the new park and on player development should take almost complete priority over 2007 payroll. "We'll get through next season somehow. And we may not be as bad as people think," one team source said. "Then, '08 will be a whole new world."
The stadium is already one-third finished with a right field grandstand that now stands 100 feet, or 10 stories, high. After five months of digging, with 340,948 cubic yards of soil removed in 34,095 truckloads, the ballpark project shifted into its steel-and-concrete erection phase on Oct. 5.
"The park is going up so fast it's phenomenal. I can hardly believe it," Lerner said. "If we don't get terrible snow or freezing rain in the next 70 days, we're going to be in very, very good shape."
The project has passed the stage at which environmental issues could emerge; now winter weather is a concern, said Matt Haas, a project director for Clark-Hunt-Smoot Construction.
"We're going to get finished on time for Opening Day of '08," Haas said. "There's no choice. We're going to get it done regardless of weather. That's why you have Saturdays and overtime, if you have to use them. So far, we're on time and on budget."
Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.