District officials yesterday began selling their plan to build a waterfront ballpark to business leaders who would end up paying the bulk of the cost, as a panel of Major League Baseball owners prepared for a meeting that could spur the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital.
The stadium, which would be located on the shores of the Anacostia River less than a mile south of the U.S. Capitol, is expected to cost more than $400 million. About $65 million would be set aside to acquire the 20-acre site. The collection of vacant lots, industrial sites, brick rowhouses and clubs is controlled by 27 private owners.
The sales pitch to business leaders, which will continue today, was another sign that negotiations to bring baseball to Washington had entered a new, if still uncertain, stage.
Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who is expected to attend today's meeting in Milwaukee, remains adamantly opposed to moving the Montreal Expos to Washington, a baseball official said yesterday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said informal discussions about compensation for Angelos have gone nowhere.
In Washington, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said the District will try to negotiate with owners of the land on which the stadium would be constructed but would use eminent domain if necessary. "Certainly, we will work with them, and hopefully, at the end of the day, we can make a deal," he said.
Six of the D.C. Council's 13 members said in interviews or through spokesmen that they would support the financing package, which requires council approval. A seventh council member, Kevin P. Chavous, did not respond to messages but has said in the past that he would support such a proposal.
That margin would shift dramatically Jan. 1, when Chavous and two other stadium supporters will be replaced. The three likely newcomers, including former mayor Marion Barry, oppose using public tax dollars to build a ballpark.
With that deadline looming, administration officials "made pretty clear" during a meeting with council members Tuesday "that they want this wrapped up by December 30," said Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), one of three council members who said they have yet to decide whether to support the stadium proposal.
A majority of the council and many residents of the community near the proposed stadium site were generally supportive of the city's decision to locate a ballpark on one of the city's bleakest landscapes. During the day, the area is populated by laborers at auto repair shops, a Metrobus parking lot, a trash recycling facility and an asphalt plant.
"It's a blight over there," said Mary C. Williams, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives across South Capitol Street from the site. "This may be an opportunity for economic development in that area."
But on the council and in the community, there seems to be significantly less support for using tax dollars to pay for a stadium.
The stadium project would be financed with 30-year bonds, which would cost as much as $43.5 million a year to service. The city proposes to generate that sum in part by collecting rent from the team's owners and imposing a sales tax on in-stadium concessions, tickets and other merchandise. But more than half the money would come from a gross receipts tax on the nearly 2,000 District businesses that each take in more than $3 million a year.
Graham said he would need to see a detailed analysis of the economic benefits baseball has to offer before he could vote for the business tax.
"Is [baseball] an economic engine or isn't it?" he said. "If it is, it can benefit schools, a public hospital, affordable housing. But if this is just something that's going to be neat psychologically, I don't want to buy it."
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the city shouldn't raise taxes for baseball when it hasn't done so for other priorities.
"Schools, libraries, you name it. We haven't raised taxes. In some cases, we've lowered taxes," Fenty said. "So for the council and the mayor to come forward and say we're going to raise taxes for baseball sends the complete wrong signal to the citizens of the District of Columbia."
Kwame R. Brown, who last week won the Democratic nomination to replace at-large council member Harold Brazil, said he would not vote to raise taxes for a ballpark under any circumstances.
"I want baseball. I just don't want to pay for it," Brown said. "I don't think the public should have to pay for a stadium."
Baseball, on the other hand, has insisted on it, telling cities vying to be the new home of the financially struggling Expos that they should be prepared to pony up. This spring, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) responded with an offer to use tax dollars to build a ballpark at one of four sites near the capital city's thriving downtown.
Today in Milwaukee, a relocation committee formed to decide the Expos' fate is likely to recommend that the team be moved to the District, according to high-level baseball sources.
"We expect a full presentation by the relocation committee to the full executive council," said Robert A. DuPuy, president of Major League Baseball.
A source said the executive council is not expected to reach a decision today.
The sources cautioned that no deal has been reached and that obstacles remain, chief among them Angelos. He has said that moving the Expos to the District would steal fans and profits from the Orioles, who play 35 miles up the road.
Baseball officials "just started" talking to Angelos about the possibility of compensating him for any loss, according to the baseball official. It was unclear what steps Angelos would take if the Expos move to Washington, the official said.
Over the past few weeks, baseball officials have met in marathon sessions with representatives from the mayor's office and the D.C. sports commission to hammer out the terms of a deal for a stadium. They settled on the financing package that administration officials presented first to council members on Tuesday and then to business and civic leaders in meetings yesterday.
With Mayor Williams attending an auto show in Paris, Deputy Mayor Eric W. Price and other officials led the briefings. Those in attendance included representatives from the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Federal City Council.
Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, attended one session. He said the city had been keeping details "close to the vest" until this week, when Price and other officials appealed for support.
Bradley said business leaders seemed inclined to support the package, but most declined to comment on it, saying they need to hear more.
"The devil is in the details," said Marie Tibor, a spokeswoman for the Board of Trade. "Even today, I'm not sure we have the details we need to be able to go to members and say, 'Hey, guys, what do you think?' "
Baseball officials were part of a series of "collaborative discussions" that led to the selection of the stadium site on the Anacostia waterfront, said Bobb, the city administrator.
The three other sites were eliminated for a variety of reasons, Bobb said. One on New York Avenue NE was deemed by baseball officials to be too close to Baltimore. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium "was out of the question" because it is not in the heart of downtown.
And the most popular site -- on Banneker Park near the Mall and the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station -- was ruled out because the novel proposal for building a stadium over Interstate 395 was too expensive and would have taken too long to build, Bobb said.
The Banneker site also is "right in the heart of a neighborhood" where community opposition was already stirring, Bobb said, a drawback unlikely to arise in the sparsely populated area on South Capitol Street.
In the last round of discussions with baseball officials, Bobb said it came down to Banneker or South Capitol. South Capitol won.
"There were collaborative discussions without folks saying, 'It's got to go here,' " Bobb said. "I think it is fair to say that both sides are happy with the choice."
The only parties who didn't seem happy yesterday were some owners of the 67 parcels that make up the proposed stadium site. Vincent Warring owns two of them, warehouses on Half Street SE.
Warring said he would want about $4 million for the two buildings and does not want to be forced to sell for much less.
"But this looks like a squeeze play to me," he said. "If they [the District] are going to go in and condemn the property and use eminent domain, what can I do?"
Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Nicole Fuller, Monte Reel, Spencer S. Hsu, Debbi Wilgoren, Yolanda Woodlee, Tom Heath and Steve Fainaru and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report. Heath reported from Milwaukee, Fainaru from Baghdad.