Mayor Anthony A. Williams made his first foray last night into a D.C. neighborhood to sell his proposal to publicly finance a baseball stadium, and he was met by a largely skeptical crowd that demanded to know whether he would work as hard to fix schools and build a new hospital.
The meeting at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Ward 7 was packed with more than 100 residents and neighborhood activists, many of whom said they support baseball, but only if the government promises to put other priorities first.
"I'm concerned that you're fighting for baseball and we do not have a public hospital" east of the Anacostia River, Jauhar Abraham, 36, who volunteers at social service centers, told Williams (D). "People are getting stabbed and shot, and they have to go wait in an ambulance at George Washington Hospital or in Prince George's County. I'm concerned with the priorities. I'm not opposed to baseball, but I want to hear you talk about that, sir."
Williams replied that the government is negotiating with Howard University to build a hospital on the campus of D.C. General, which was closed in 2001.
"Can we get that first?" someone in the crowd shouted, as an organizer called an end to the meeting.
Last night marked the first time the mayor has met with a large group of citizens to discuss his proposal to build a $440 million publicly financed stadium on the Anacostia waterfront. Williams and several other city leaders leave tomorrow for China and Thailand for 11 days to discuss trade. Some city leaders say Williams should remain in town to sell his plan before the D.C. Council's Oct. 28 public hearing on the issue.
The mayor had talked with some neighborhood leaders in Ward 6, near the proposed stadium site, in a more intimate setting shortly after the announcement by Major League Baseball last month that the Montreal Expos will be moved to Washington next season if a new stadium is promised. But Williams's proposal has been criticized by activists who argue that the money could be better used to improve schools, libraries and health care, and to build more affordable housing.
Williams told the crowd last night that the baseball stadium would bring millions of dollars to the city through taxes on businesses and concessions at the stadium, as well as a stadium lease fee paid by the team and increased tourism and investment in the District. He pledged to invest some of that money in other city programs.
"We can leverage this investment and put money in schools and rec centers," he said. "I believe we are able to build a stadium the way we describe and put additional funding [to other needs]. This is not an either-or decision."
East of the Anacostia River, Williams has suffered from the impression that he has led a revitalization in downtown Washington but not in the poorest neighborhoods.
Constance Woody, who lives in Ward 7, told the mayor that "schools are in shambles east of the river. If we have this ambition to raise funds, why not raise funds to repair schools and give the children the incentive to learn?"
Williams said he has increased the school budget every year and noted that he has consistently proposed spending more money on social programs despite some opposition from D.C. Council members who want to lower taxes.
"I have never seen a proposal from my most vociferous critics to increase taxes for any of these things," Williams said. "I have got the credibility because I put money in schools."
Not everyone was critical of the mayor. Wanda Carter, president of the River Terrace Community Organization, said she welcomes baseball because she believes it will revitalize the Ward 6 area where she grew up.
"It's all good," Carter said.
Williams emphasized that the stadium, unlike the Redskins' FedEx Field or Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, would be built in an area that is not isolated and that can become a vibrant shopping and restaurant district.
"FedEx is the old suburban model," Williams said. "It's a giant parking lot with a big stadium plopped down like a spaceship. You can't go anywhere to shop. You can't go anywhere to eat. We're bringing this stadium to a vibrant community."