The D.C. Council reopened debate yesterday over the financing and location of a baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals, prompting fears from some city officials that the timetable could be set back on the high-stakes project.
Council members sparred at their monthly legislative meeting after Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) proposed a resolution asking Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to allow the council to review an agreement with Deutsche Bank, which would provide some private financing for the stadium.
Under that deal, which has not been finalized, the city would receive a payment of $246 million from the bank in return for revenue generated from the new ballpark along the Anacostia River.
Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who had endorsed the Deutsche Bank plan, responded by warning Orange that she could raise the ante by resurrecting an idea she broached last fall: building the ballpark at the site of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Locating it there, Cropp has said, could save the city as much as $200 million.
"We need to stop jerking everyone around," Cropp said. "We either move forward and [build the stadium] or say, 'Hey, there are problems.' . . . If there is a problem, we need to look at an alternative site and move there."
The debate between Cropp and Orange was seen by some council members as pure politics, because both are seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Williams as mayor.
Despite her warning, Cropp supported Orange's resolution, which passed by a vote of 9 to 4. Cropp said later that she voted in favor because the resolution was nonbinding, meaning that the mayor can decide whether to send the financing deal to the council. Under the resolution adopted yesterday, the council can review the deal and ask questions of the administration, but members would have to propose new legislation in order to kill the deal.
Nevertheless, the council debate caused some city officials to express concern that the council could delay the complicated stadium project, which is scheduled to be finished in March 2008.
Williams's spokesman, Vincent Morris, said the mayor would respect the council's wishes and forward details of the Deutsche Bank plan. Morris stressed that the mayor does not want to build the stadium at the RFK site.
"If the council wants to head in yet another direction, we'll work with them and try to find a strategy that makes sense," Morris said. "But at a certain point, we'll need to move forward."
Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's chief financial officer, said the Deutsche Bank deal must be finalized by next month for the city to meet its goal of getting the stadium financing in place by the end of the year.
"We've entered into an agreement with Deutsche Bank," he said. "My expectation is that the council and mayor would honor their word."
Meanwhile, steps to begin stadium construction will continue.
Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said, "We will confer about today's proceedings, but we intend to move forward with construction of the new stadium unless directed otherwise."
Some council members also are seeking to review a lease agreement for the new stadium being negotiated between the sports commission and Major League Baseball. The lease negotiations have held up the sale of the Nationals.
Last year, Williams proposed paying for the stadium through a gross receipts tax on city businesses, a stadium concessions tax and an annual rent payment by the team. But Cropp cast the deciding vote in favor of the stadium project only after the mayor agreed to seek private dollars.
Of eight proposals submitted to the city, Gandhi and Cropp ultimately endorsed the Deutsche Bank plan. Cropp said that businesses would benefit greatly from the plan, which would reduce the gross receipts tax from a total of $14 million a year to about $8 million or less.
But Orange said yesterday that Cropp "wants to be able to go out and say she got private financing. It's a bad deal."
Council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) voted against Orange's resolution.
"This is more about rhetoric, and it puts the stadium at risk," Mendelson said. "We are at the risk of reopening the wounds here, and to what purpose? For a silly piece of legislation?"
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.