D.C. Council members say the city cannot afford the $200 million that Mayor Anthony A. Williams has pledged for building a baseball stadium unless the money can be recovered by taxing new economic activity at or near a ballpark.
As Williams (D) makes his latest pitch to Major League Baseball with a 70-page report released last week, the council is growing more cautious about the effort because of the city's fiscal troubles and a per-capita debt burden that is among the nation's heaviest.
Enthusiasm remains high for returning Major League Baseball to Washington after its 31-year absence. But council members are increasingly looking toward the region's business community to pay for most of the cost of a stadium, which could run more than $400 million.
"It depends on whether the private sector wants a baseball stadium enough. They have to ante up and do it," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), head of the council's finance committee. "With this economy, there is no extra money for this project."
Major League Baseball officials, who have called the Washington area a top contender for a relocated team, have declined to comment on the report, which was done jointly by the city government and the Washington Baseball Club, a potential ownership group. The report portrays Washington as eager for a relocated team and able to pay its share of a stadium at one of five sites detailed by consultants.
Williams, who regards bringing baseball to Washington as crucial to his legacy as mayor, pledged up to $200 million of city financing for a stadium in a letter to league officials in November 2000.
As the league mulls over the possible relocation of several teams, the mayor is attempting to assemble a stadium financing package that relies as heavily as possible on sources related to the ballpark itself, such as taxes on concessions, parking, tickets and player salaries. That revenue would be used to repay a loan the city would need to cover its share of construction costs.
"The mayor's not going to support any financing arrangement that puts the city's fiscal future in jeopardy," said Tony Bullock, the mayor's spokesman. "The bulk of the costs are going to be offset by project-based revenues."
But administration officials acknowledge that those sources are unlikely to generate all the money necessary to cover the $20 million or more of annual debt payments for a $200 million loan. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said such new tax sources might cover two-thirds of the payment but the rest would require a new lottery game or a tax increase, perhaps on alcohol or cigarettes.
It is that final piece of the financing package that would likely generate the most council opposition if Major League Baseball decides it wants a team in Washington.
"I'm not prepared to have the city build a baseball stadium," said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). "My inclination is, if the city has to put up $200 million, $300 million in this economy, I am not prepared to do it."
She added she would look more favorably on a package that could be repaid entirely by revenue generated at a stadium or from nearby development. Her final judgment would depend on the details of the administration's package, she said.
The league has made clear that it regards state-of-the-art facilities as crucial to the success of new teams.
Robert L. Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television and heads a second group bidding for a team, said last week that Williams's pledge of $200 million is not enough because owners could not afford to contribute more than $100 million.
Most council members said $200 million is likely the maximum the city could afford, no matter how the money is raised. Some said reaching even that amount would be a struggle. "We have too many other competing demands," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "I'm not so excited about baseball that I'm willing to have us snookered."
Economists say that stadiums do not generate enough economic activity to pay for themselves; they mainly tap entertainment dollars already circulating in a region's economy. In the Washington area, many of those existing dollars are spent in the suburbs, beyond the reach of the city's taxation powers.
Advocates of major public investment in a stadium say the project would focus that spending in the city and generate development nearby. A taxation district including the stadium and nearby blocks could use heightened economic activity to repay debt.
"A baseball team for the nation's capital is a very important thing," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "If you convince people of a site and the prospective economic benefits . . . I think the money will be found."
But the ability to spur development depends heavily on the site chosen. A ballpark adjacent to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Northeast Washington, for example, would be the least expensive, at $342 million, according to the report, but there would be few nearby places for fans to spend money. A site east of Mount Vernon Square in Northwest, by contrast, is closest to downtown's bars and restaurants, but neighborhood opposition is fierce and land costs high. A project there could run as much as $542 million.
A site near the Navy Yard in Southeast and two sites near Union Station -- one on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the other on New York Avenue NE -- are regarded by city officials as offering the best potential for economic development. The cost of stadiums at those sites was estimated at $410 million to $430 million.
Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.