D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said yesterday that she would support Mayor Anthony A. Williams's plan to build a publicly financed baseball stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast, as long as the contract stipulates the possibility of adding private funding in the future.
"We probably will do that," she said. "I have said from the start that I am in favor of baseball. I'm just looking for a better deal. It's premature to say whether anything will come up that is a better deal."
Cropp's statement came after she and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) met with Fred Cooke, an attorney for BW Realty Advisors LLC. That group has proposed using as much as $350 million in private funds to build the stadium, estimated to cost as much as $530 million.
Evans said Cooke was unable to answer many of the key questions about the company's plan. Cooke said in an interview that he needed more data from the city about the ballpark to supply those answers. Cooke will return Monday to provide additional information to the full council.
BW Realty is not the only group interested in presenting a private financing proposal to the District government. After Cropp (D) held up a council vote on the mayor's stadium plan Tuesday, a half-dozen inquiries were made by private companies, mayoral aides said.
Williams (D), who had expressed shock when Cropp blocked the vote, took a more moderate stance yesterday. He said he feels "love and respect" for the chairman and was open to considering all funding options.
"If we can incorporate a way to publicly vet and approve a private financing package . . . then by all means I'd be the first to endorse it," Williams said.
Cropp has placed the stadium plan on the council's Nov. 23 agenda. But Evans said that Harold Brazil (D-At Large) cannot attend that meeting, so Evans will seek to move up the vote to next week.
Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said he expects the council to approve the mayor's plan and then continue to review private financing options by setting up a competitive bid process. Seven of the 13 council members continue to offer "rock-solid" support for the mayor's plan, Orange added.
Under the mayor's pact with Major League Baseball, the stadium would be financed by a gross receipts tax on big businesses, a tax on concessions and an annual rent payment by the team. In return, baseball officials would relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington in the spring.
Mayoral aides said they had spent considerable time looking into a handful of private funding proposals offered by developers. Several of those contained a key provision that the developer would gain control of parcels of land outside the stadium's 21-acre plot, aides said.
Such a plan was deemed risky because gaining control of the extra land would be difficult, aides said. Though the government can seize land through eminent domain for public causes, it is far more difficult to do so legally if the land is to be turned over to a private developer.
The plan offered by BW Realty, owned by lawyer Richard A. Gross and Michael Sununu, does not include such a provision, according to company documents. Under the proposal, the District would pay $150 million for infrastructure improvements and to buy the 21 acres. The city would lease the land to BW Realty, which would find investors and float bonds to raise $350 million for the stadium, an office building and a parking structure.
BW Realty would then lease the stadium to the team's owners. After 25 years, the company could pay off its land lease or give the stadium to the city. How BW Realty would repay the debt annually and make money is not clear, Evans said.
Major League Baseball has been promised money generated from stadium naming rights and significant portions from parking, concessions and ticket sales. Evans said he told Cooke that changing those parts of the deal to give more revenue to BW Realty is not possible because baseball officials would object.
"The three of us asked a lot of questions that were not answered," Evans said of himself, Cropp and Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, who also attended the meeting. "My first question was, 'What's in it for you?' They were vague. . . . At this point, I'm not convinced this would work."
Cooke disputed that, saying he provided significant details. He said BW Realty hopes the concept "resonates enough with elected officials, and hopefully the general public and Major League Baseball, that it can be fleshed out and brought to fruition."
Until then, he added, "we are not anywhere close for a full-blown detailed plan to be done."
Mayoral advisers have described BW Realty's finance plan as a questionable tax-shelter method known as "sale-in, lease-out," in which the company, unlike the government, could use the depreciation of the stadium as a write-off on its investors' income tax. This practice was legal until last month, when President Bush signed legislation closing the loophole, said a U.S. Senate staff member who worked on the legislation.
But the Senate staff member said the BW Realty deal did not appear to be a "sale-in, lease-out" arrangement because the company would not be leasing the stadium back to the government but rather to a private entity -- the team owners. Cooke said the plan would pay investors a profit of 10 percent annually over 25 years, largely through tax write-offs.
Evans and others noted that Major League Baseball is interested in having the least risk in getting the stadium built.
"If we cede it to private developers and they can't get it done, we'll sue them, and they'll sue us, and it will be in the courts," Evans said. "And meanwhile, the stadium isn't getting built."