In the drawings, a baseball stadium flares to life in the heart of the nation's capital. The Washington Monument towers in the distance. City residents, federal workers and tourists stroll down streets newly lined with shops and posh cafes on their way to cheer a ball team, the home team, for the first time in Washington in more than 30 years.
The stands, of course, are packed.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams offered this vision two weeks ago to Major League Baseball officials considering a new home for the ailing Montreal Expos. To bring it to life, Williams (D) promised to provide full public financing for a 41,000-seat stadium at any of four D.C. locations, one of them near L'Enfant Plaza, within walking distance of the Mall.
Baseball officials said they were impressed. One said the L'Enfant Plaza site could be "a real jewel." But as the owners' relocation committee meets today in New York to discuss the Expos' future, people in and around baseball say Washington has yet to remove a major obstacle to winning the team: establishing legal authority for its stadium financing plan.
Baseball insiders say pretty maps and drawings are all well and good, but they want a stadium package signed, sealed and delivered before they move the Expos to a permanent home. A decision could come this year. But D.C. Council leaders adamantly refuse to vote on a financing package -- likely to include millions of dollars in new business taxes -- until baseball makes a commitment.
"When they tell me they're going to put a team here, we'll get the job done," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the council's finance committee. "Why would I pass a tax through this council, then have baseball say they're going to Las Vegas?"
Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, one of eight relocation committee members who listened to Williams's pitch two weeks ago, said the District must make good on its promises before baseball would make a final decision.
"That was one of the impressive parts of the [District's] presentation, that they represented that they could get it done," Hicks said.
It's unclear how the standoff can be resolved. Williams and other city officials said they are confident that the appeal of the Washington market will overcome any uncertainties in their proposal.
The District lies at the heart of the nation's fifth-largest metropolitan area, and its residents claim among the highest levels of disposable income in the United States, according to city officials. Most of the District's competitors for the Expos represent much smaller markets with unproven ability to support a major league team, they said.
In addition to Las Vegas, the bidders are Northern Virginia; Hampton Roads, Va., near Norfolk; Portland, Ore.; and Monterrey, Mexico.
"The competition can't match us," said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).
On the other hand, Washington has chased baseball teams away. Two different versions of the Washington Senators packed up and left town. The first became the Minnesota Twins in 1960, and the second became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Although the Washington Redskins consistently sell out FedEx Field in suburban Prince George's County, the basketball Wizards and the hockey Capitals are struggling to fill seats seven years after moving to their new downtown home at MCI Center.
There's also the matter of the Baltimore Orioles, whose owner, Peter Angelos, opposes a team in Washington. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who is said to be loyal to Angelos, has consistently opposed moving teams to markets where they might steal fans from established franchises.
The District's failure to approve a financing plan could compound those disadvantages. Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who writes and lectures on baseball, said baseball officials are unlikely to make a commitment to any city without a deal in place.
"A deal is a deal. They don't have a deal," Zimbalist said of District officials. "They don't have to put a shovel in the ground, but they have to have legislation and a financial plan in place. . . . There's not going to be any ink on a franchise proposal until then."
It's been difficult to determine whether Williams and council leaders even have a clear plan for funding the stadium, much less signed legislation. Details of the financing package have been a closely guarded secret. City officials say specifics of the tax package would depend on where a stadium was built.
Cost estimates start at $278 million to build a ballpark on the grounds of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the city controls the land and there is already ample parking. Sites on New York Avenue NE and near the Anacostia waterfront would be more expensive -- in the range of $355 million -- in part because the city would have to purchase most of the land from private owners.
The most expensive site, at $383 million, includes a unique proposal to build a stadium on a platform straddling Interstate 395 near L'Enfant Plaza. The land is owned by the federal government, and the District already controls the air rights over the highway. But the design presents obvious challenges, and city officials have contacted architects to discuss its feasibility.
Still, the site is generating significant enthusiasm among baseball officials and city leaders. Williams called it "a fabulous site," three blocks from the Mall and "22 million tourists a year." City officials said it also could create a pedestrian-friendly boulevard linking the Mall to a major redevelopment project on the Southwest waterfront.
"It certainly makes everyone [at baseball] more comfortable if the stadium is serving not only 3.5 million fans a year, but serving its role in the community when it can instigate additional urban growth and development," said Janet Marie Smith, an urban planner who helped develop Baltimore's Camden Yards and is vice president for planning and development for the Boston Red Sox.
D.C. officials say they plan to pay for the stadium with revenue bonds, financed with three potential sources of revenue: sales taxes on stadium services, including tickets, parking and concessions; lease payments from the new team at sites other than RFK; and a new tax on the city's largest businesses.
All told, the city would need as much as $24 million a year in new revenue, according to city officials, but they have refused to say what portion of the sum would come from new taxes on business.
Baseball's No. 2 official, President and Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy, said that, for now, owners are proceeding on the District's assurances that "all necessary approvals had been or would be obtained." Williams said that if he gets the nod from baseball, he can win approval for a financing plan in as little as 45 days.
But Evans and Cropp concede that they have not lined up seven votes on the 13-member council. Both predicted they would have no trouble, even though some members strongly oppose using tax dollars to build a stadium "to house a team owned by billionaires," in the words of council member David A. Catania (R-At Large).
Neither the mayor nor the council has discussed their tax plan with business leaders, who said they are baffled by their exclusion from the process.
"If I were in [baseball's] position, I'd really want to know that people are all lined up for the financing," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which campaigned aggressively last year for a stadium tax.
Lang said the business community is eager to endorse the new plan, as well. But at this point, she said, "I don't have a clue what it is."