The chances of the Montreal Expos relocating to the Washington area or Charlotte appear to be declining, as a group of the team's limited partners continue to work at saving the economically troubled franchise coveted by investors here and in Charlotte.
The group of limited partners is assembling a refinancing package in which New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria would buy control of the team for $50 million, or about $70 million to $75 million Canadian. Roger Samson, a marketing consultant for the group, hopes the package will be completed within four weeks.
"The key point is: There are no snags," Samson said. "We are progressing one day after the other."
Commissioner Bud Selig must endorse the deal before it is presented to owners for approval. He has said he prefers the Expos remain in Montreal if a stadium plan and ownership group prove acceptable.
Late last week, the commissioner said it is too early to tell whether the Expos would remain in Montreal. He declined to be more specific. The major remaining hurdle is for Selig's office to review and approve plans for a relatively low-budget ($133 million, or $200 million Canadian) downtown stadium, according to limited partner Mark Routtenberg and two spokesmen for the group.
Routtenberg said Selig's office is awaiting a report from HOK Sport, the Kansas City, Mo.-based architectural and consulting firm specializing in ballparks. Nothing pertaining to the new ownership group will be formalized until Selig approves all elements of the deal, Routtenberg and the spokesmen said.
Since last month's All-Star Game, when the major question appeared to be where baseball would allow the Expos to move, several factors changed the momentum in Montreal:
Loria, a onetime high school shortstop and the losing finalist to Peter Angelos in the 1993 bankruptcy auction for the Baltimore Orioles, completed his review of the team's finances and agreed to invest $50 million ($75 million Canadian) to become general partner of the new ownership group. Loria, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would own about 39 percent of the equity in the team.
A financial plan was formulated for the restructured ownership. The Canadian government this month agreed in principle to sell the new ownership group a parcel of land in downtown Montreal for $10 million to $12 million ($16 million to $18 million Canadian). With this location for the proposed stadium a block from Molson Centre, where the NHL's Montreal Canadiens play, the limited partners putting together the new financing plan are projecting average attendance of 30,000 per game and $63 million ($95 million Canadian) in local revenues, more than tripling current attendance and more than a five-fold increase in local revenue. They project the income would support a $50 million player payroll, three times higher than what the Expos have. Sources said Selig accepted this financial plan in its 19th version submitted to his office.
A financing plan for the stadium was reached. The Quebec provincial government would pay the interest on $66.5 million in loans ($100 million Canadian), or half the stadium's projected cost. The remaining $66.5 million would come from the sale of personal seat licenses (Jean Simard, a spokesman for the limited partners, said PSL sales have surpassed half of the $50 million goal) and from new minority investors who have committed another $50 million ($75 million Canadian), giving the franchise $100 million in new capital. (Routtenberg said the financial plan provides for an additional 10 percent to be spent on building a stadium, depending on its still-undetermined capacity.)
The limited partners agreed to buy out the 7.2 percent of the team owned by general partner and team president Claude Brochu for $10 million ($15 million Canadian). Last fall, Brochu decided the team could not survive in Montreal, but he failed to get enough support from the limited partners to sell the team -- at a significantly higher price -- to a buyer who would move it. Although the buyout has been agreed upon, Brochu last week set a Sept. 30 deadline for completion.
With a go-ahead from Selig, baseball owners would have to approve the sale to Loria, but their main concern is believed to be finding a way to decrease the flow of revenue-sharing dollars to the franchise. Payments to the Expos from Major League Baseball totaled $33.2 million last season.
The infusion of new working capital from Loria would enable the franchise to buy out Brochu as well as virtually eliminate its estimated $46 million to $53 million ($70 million to $80 million Canadian) in debt, including an estimated $19.9 million ($30 million Canadian) in losses this season. To accommodate the new investors and keep the team in Montreal, the limited partners -- mainly civic-minded major Canadian corporations -- have agreed to allow the amount of their existing ownership stake to be diluted by two-thirds.
The growing momentum toward the Expos remaining in Montreal does not come as a surprise to Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. "I've been hearing that's possible from the people I've been talking to in the commissioner's office," he said recently. "I just hope people don't think this is our last chance for a team."
Samson said Washington and Charlotte deserve teams. "I sympathize with the people wanting a franchise," he said. "But it's not going to be this one."