More than 100 protesters denounced a proposal to build a baseball stadium in the District with public funds yesterday, vowing that Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other supporters will face stiff opposition.
"We're here to tell this mayor that his priorities are out of order," Damu Smith, head of Black Voices for Peace, told the crowd and reporters in front of city hall shortly before baseball stadium legislation was formally introduced to the D.C. Council.
"We say to this mayor and some members of the city council that you will not get this stadium when people are sleeping on the streets and schools are crumbling," Smith continued. "You are not going to have an easy way to get this stadium through."
The coalition was composed of members of a diverse number of interest groups, including schools and affordable housing activists. They were joined by council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), as well as Vincent C. Gray, who last month won the Democratic primary for the Ward 7 council seat.
Williams (D) dismissed the protesters, calling the demonstration "populist grandstanding."
Responding to reporters' questions after a news conference to announce a new information hotline number, 211, for social services, Williams added that the city "can do this [stadium] and make the kinds of investments we can make in schools and recreation."
At the council's monthly legislative meeting shortly after the demonstration, Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) referred the stadium legislation to two committees.
The portion dealing with taxes went to the Committee on Finance and Revenue, headed by Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), and the portion dealing with bonds went to the Committee on Economic Development, headed by Harold Brazil (D-At Large).
The committees will hold public hearings on the legislation before deciding whether to forward the bill to the full council for a vote.
The proposal to approve a $440 million financing package to build a new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront has been met with criticism from some activists and elected leaders since Major League Baseball announced last week that the Montreal Expos would be moved to the District next spring. The team would play for three years at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, which is to be renovated for $13 million, until a new stadium has been constructed.
Under the mayor's stadium proposal, the city would issue as much as $500 million in revenue bonds and repay them with sales taxes from in-stadium services and merchandise, as well as a gross-receipts tax on businesses that take in $3 million or more annually.
The tax -- or "ballpark fee," as the mayor calls it -- would cost nearly 2,000 of the city's largest businesses between $3,000 and $28,200 a year.
Holding signs with slogans such as "No DC taxes for baseball!" and "Fund people's needs, not baseball stadiums," the protesters said they hope to convince a majority of the 13-member D.C. Council to change the terms of the mayor's deal with baseball officials.
The protesters complained that the city has far more pressing needs on which to spend public dollars, such as improving the school system, creating more affordable housing and building a public hospital to serve areas east of the Anacostia River.
"We want a better deal for students, not for baseball's barons," said Margot Berkey, director of Parents United for D.C. schools. "Let's make our schools into stadiums of quality education."
Fenty has vowed to introduce competing legislation that would force a new team to play at RFK Stadium permanently. Catania criticized Williams's negotiations with baseball officials.
"What I saw was no negotiations from the mayor," Catania said. "He basically threw open the gates of the treasury and said, 'Help yourself.' "
But Williams expressed confidence that the council would approve the financing package.
"People will be supportive," Williams said. "The substance of this will pass."
Albert R. "Butch" Hopkins, head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., said he supported the mayor's financing package and the proposed site.
"The stadium can have restaurants and stores around it," Hopkins said. "We're talking about people from surrounding jurisdictions having their entertainment dollars spent in the District."
Staff writer Theola S. Labbe contributed to this report.