At last week's marathon hearing on whether the city should build a new baseball stadium, a self-possessed 28-year-old investment banker from Memphis seemed to have all the answers. If the city helps him buy the former Montreal Expos, Brian L. Saulsberry told the D.C. Council, he and his partners would pay for the ballpark and a new parking lot to boot.
Saulsberry's proposal stirred interest among the scores of people who came to City Hall to testify against using tax dollars to pay for a stadium. Saulsberry said a number of council members also were intrigued. And this week, Saulsberry said he got word that D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is seeking a meeting.
"They appear to be very interested," Saulsberry said by telephone from his offices in Germantown, Tenn. "One of my close contacts in the mayor's office sent me an e-mail this morning saying they want to talk more."
And why not? According to Saulsberry's calculations, his proposal would save the city more than $100 million. On Monday, Saulsberry put out a press release urging the city to use the windfall for "construction for a new general hospital to replace D.C. General . . . construction of an Orphanage for children and . . . Youth Recreation Centers."
So how would the Saulsberry plan work? According to a proposal submitted to council members, Saulsberry wants the city to buy land for the stadium, lease it to him and turn the entire project over to DSG Baseball LLC, a Tennessee partnership formed in 2003 to try to buy the Expos and move them to Nashville. That plan imploded after Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell refused Saulsberry's request for the city to pay for a $450 million ballpark, according to the Tennessean newspaper.
In D.C., Saulsberry says, DSG would design, finance and construct a $300 million stadium, plus pay for $13 million in renovations at RFK Stadium, plus develop the land around the new stadium, in part by building a parking garage for baseball fans. All the city has to do is give DSG an "economic incentive fee in the amount of $235 million."
So "we're not really paying for the whole thing," Saulsberry acknowledged. "It balances out to $105 million in savings," compared with the deal for which the Williams administration is seeking council approval.
In recent days, Saulsberry has relentlessly promoted his plan among council members. But even the fiercest opponents of the Williams deal say they're not especially impressed.
"It seems like just another financing scheme for the baseball stadium," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).
Equally problematic, Saulsberry, who graduated from Howard University in 1998, has been unable to convince anyone in District government that he has the financial wherewithal to make good on his plans.
"I gotta tell you, there was a lot lacking in his presentation, including specifics about how he would expect to finance a $400 million venture," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "When I pressed for specifics on where the money would come from, I was simply told he had 'access to money.' "
Added Fenty: "It's hard to know if he's for real or not. He's got enthusiasm, but I don't know if he's got anything else needed to pull a deal together."
The DSG Baseball group includes Alphonso Maldon Jr., a former assistant secretary of defense who headed President Clinton's White House military office; Stanley Glenn, president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association; Tom Pagnozzi, a former St. Louis Cardinals catcher who owns a construction firm in Fayetteville, Ark.; and Rick Kelleher, former president of Promus Hotel Corp., which was acquired by Hilton Hotels Corp. in 1999. Saulsberry said they have been talking to baseball officials "for months" about making the Expos the "first-ever Major League Baseball team [to be] majority African American owned."
Saulsberry said he takes "offense" at questions about where the group will get its cash. "You wouldn't ask Warren Buffet where his money comes from," he said.
Still, inquiring minds want to know. Chris Bender, a spokesman for Williams, said the mayor's office is likely to set up a meeting with Saulsberry to "better understand what he's proposing." But Bender called Saulsberry's assertion that the mayor is "very interested" in the plan "a bit of an overstatement."
"This is an unsolicited proposal," Bender said, "and I think we'll treat it with the respect we would accord any other unsolicited proposal."
Barry Swings Away
The baseball hearing also marked the first time Marion Barry has appeared in the council chamber since Sept. 14, when he won the Democratic nomination for the Ward 8 council seat. The former mayor appeared confident as he offered a scathing indictment of Williams's stadium proposal to his soon-to-be council colleagues, dubbing it "the big stick-up."
"We have to say we're not going to be stuck up," Barry said. "Why should we subsidize these millionaires?"
Barry handled criticism from supporters of the baseball deal with aplomb, refusing to get rattled when Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large) reminded Barry that he'd relied on many of the same financing strategies to build MCI Center.
But the former mayor got a little confused under friendly questioning from Catania. Barry attempted to cut off the voluble council member, saying he wanted to "reclaim" a portion of "my time," referring to the three minutes that hearing chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) had allotted each council member to ask Barry questions. But Catania cut Barry off, noting correctly that the time technically belonged to him.
"Wait a minute. Is it your time or my time?" Barry asked.
"My time," Catania answered. "But it will be your time in due time."