Mayor Plays Down Dispute

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he is not dismayed by the Nationals' refusal to pay $3.5 million in rent on the stadium.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he is not dismayed by the Nationals' refusal to pay $3.5 million in rent on the stadium. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday played down an escalating dispute between the city and the Washington Nationals, predicting that it will be resolved in a "timely manner" and calling the baseball team's owners good corporate citizens.

Speaking on WTOP Radio's politics program, Fenty (D) said he was not alarmed by the Nationals' refusal to pay $3.5 million in rent. According to the Lerner family, which owns the franchise, the $611 million ballpark built by the city is not "substantially complete."

The Washington Post reported yesterday that city officials have said the case is likely headed to binding arbitration, with the team demanding $100,000 a day in damages since March 1. Another fight involves the timing of sales tax payments on pre-sold tickets, with the team paying game-by-game and the city wanting the money up front.

"I'm not disappointed, disturbed or surprised," Fenty said. "I've watched a lot of big development deals happen. This is the biggest one that's ever happened in the city, and I think, to be honest with you, if all the t's were crossed and all the i's were dotted this soon after being complete, we'd be living in some fantasy world.

"Every development project has issues that remain unresolved this far in, and I think on our side, the deputy mayor is doing a fantastic job. On their side, I think the Lerners are very sincere in what they believe are their rights and obligations and we'll come to an agreement as soon as possible."

Fenty voted against public financing of the stadium as a D.C. Council member, but he has taken a more conciliatory tone about the project since becoming mayor. The Lerners donated and raised significant money for Fenty's handpicked successor on the council, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

Also yesterday, the Lerners made their first public comments about the dispute, saying in a statement that they have "every confidence the obligations will be met."

"We are very proud of the accomplishments of the elected and appointed officials of Washington DC, who worked with contractors, fans, and the Nationals to meet the daunting deadlines that made the on-time opening of Nationals Park a huge success," the Lerners said. "We are confident that we can now -- with the same professional vigor and commitment -- complete the project in a manner that will fulfill our promise to taxpayers and will ensure that Nationals Ballpark can enjoy its fullest potential."

Even as the two sides sought to tamp down their rhetoric, other D.C. government officials said privately that there was significant ill will between the city and the team. Although the Nationals have played 48 games at the ballpark through last night, the Lerners have said they consider the hundreds of "punch list" items still to be done at the ballpark to mean that the stadium remains unfinished under the contract.

The public airing of the ongoing negotiations has provided fodder for discussion among Nationals fans and Washington area residents. At BallparkGuys, a popular fan Web site, a message board posting about the dispute had drawn 56 comments. Opinion varied, but a majority appeared to agree with the city that the stadium is essentially complete.

Informed of the debate this week as he watched the Nationals lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rodolfo Antorcha, a D.C. resident, said the Lerners "got a really sweet deal. I don't think they have a thing to complain about. The city met the deadlines. It looks fine."

Staff writer Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.

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