Opponents of a plan to build a baseball stadium with public funds have viewed their cause as a long shot. But recent developments have ignited some optimism.
First, 90 economists denounced the plan in a letter to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Then, the city's chief financial officer released a report saying the stadium would cost $91 million more than the $440 million budgeted. Thursday, several hundred residents turned out for a boisterous public hearing before the D.C. Council.
Yet with nine days left before the council's first vote, key city leaders said the verdict is conclusive: The stadium is a go.
That pronouncement is indicative of the way Williams and his key advisers have peddled the plan to build a stadium on the Anacostia waterfront from the time the administration struck a deal with Major League Baseball to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington.
The confident posture comes from city officials' belief that at least eight of the 13 council members will vote for the mayor's stadium plan. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) -- chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which will review the baseball bill Wednesday -- said he has evidence of enormous interest in bringing baseball back. His office has received 7,000 e-mails, nearly all in support of the project.
In fact, the mayor has been so confident that he has played a limited role in selling his vision to the public.
After meeting privately with a dozen neighborhood leaders in the Wilson Building shortly after the announcement, Williams has appeared at just one neighborhood meeting, attended by 150 people. While the mayor was on an 11-day trip to Asia, his aides discussed the baseball plan at previously scheduled events rather than organize community briefings specifically to address the issue. They often moved through PowerPoint presentations with little visible emotion, sounding almost rote.
Williams did not attend the council's lone public hearing, at which nearly 200 speakers sparred during 16 hours of testimony.
Before the hearing began, Williams posed in the lobby with Expos second baseman Brendan Harris. As the public testified, Williams was outside the building predicting the stadium's approval. Asked why he did not attend the hearing to hear directly from residents, Williams replied, "I have listened to their position."
Opponents warn that they have not given up and say that things could change by Nov. 9, when the council is to take its first vote.
"It's an uphill battle," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who opposes the stadium. "But uphill battles are sometimes won."
Already, the anti-stadium lobbying has gained concessions.
Under the mayor's plan, the ballpark would be financed by a gross-receipts tax of the largest 11 percent of city businesses, a tax on concessions and an annual rent payment by the team. Mayoral aides are revising some minor elements of the gross-receipts tax to answer concerns of the business community, which wants to prorate the tax so that the larger a company is, the more it will pay.
Last week, Williams proposed creating a $400 million community investment package aimed at appeasing opponents who said public money would be better spent on schools, libraries, recreation centers and hospitals.
But the mayor's action had another intention as well: shoring up more council votes.
Evans, Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) have been mostly supportive of the mayor's plan. By adding the community investment package, Williams solidified the support of Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8). Evans said Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) is also on board.
Fenty, David A. Catania (I-At large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) are opposed to the plan. Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) have expressed serious reservations, although mayoral aides continue to lobby Graham.
Catania contended at Thursday's public hearing that the mayor was "twisting every arm and greasing every group" to get his package approved.
Public skepticism of the process to carry off the baseball plan reached a high note at the hearing. The 10 council members who attended spent about five hours opining and questioning government witnesses. Only then were public witnesses taken. The hearing lasted until nearly 2 a.m. Friday, by which time dozens of residents had given up and gone home.
"This is ludicrous and unacceptable: It's 2 in the morning, and we're having a public hearing," Raymond Blanks, a Lincoln Park resident who opposes the stadium, told the three council members who remained.
Sarah Sloan, who also opposes the stadium, demanded that the council "hold another public hearing or a series of hearings that take place when people can participate."
Evans said he has held public hearings in many formats during his 13-year council career: He has split hearings into two days, and he has ordered that government witnesses speak last. But, he said, each approach prompts complaints.
"The best way is to start the hearing and go all the way through," he said. "Everything we're doing is by the book."
In the community, it seemed at times that stadium opponents, not the mayor's staff, were making more of an impression.
Residents balked when Williams failed to attend a contentious community meeting last week in Southwest, near the site of the proposed ballpark. The skeptical crowd mocked city officials who did appear and shouted down City Administrator Robert C. Bobb.
But when Ed Lazere, co-leader of the group No D.C. Taxes for Baseball, took the stage without notes or computer-generated graphics, he brought down the house with a succinctly summarized presentation.
Yet Williams, Evans and Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, continue to express confidence. Further boosting their posture, council staffers said, is the great sway that Cropp holds with fellow council members. At the public hearing, she opened her remarks by telling the crowd that money for the stadium cannot be used for other projects.
"Once we get by that fact, we can get into a discussion of whether you are for or against baseball," she said.
Evans said his committee might send the stadium financing package to the full council without the mayor's proposed community investment piece, which would be presented at a later time. Asked whether residents who oppose the stadium legislation will be angered by such a move, Evans was undaunted.
"You have to trust your elected officials to do what they do. We don't rule by mob; we rule by elected official," he said. "If I want to move one thing forward, and I give you my word I'll move another later, then I will. I don't feel pressure or angst to do them together."