National pastime returns to nation’s capital

Baseball is on the public mind as the season wrapped up last week with a record-setting October surprise as the Boston Red Sox, the American League’s notorious underdog, won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. And now, Washingtonians can look forward to cheering for a team of their own at the April start of next season, for the first time since the Washington Senators left the city in 1971.

Major League Baseball chose Washington, D.C., as the new home of the Montreal Expos last month. The team is currently owned by MLB, but has been taking bids for prospective owners. With the recent hiring of a new general manager, Jim Bowden, the former GM of the Cincinnati Reds, things are starting to fall into place for the team. But for now, the D.C. City Council must face the logistical nightmares that are involved in building a brand new stadium.

Mayor Anthony Williams has agreed, despite much controversy, to build the new stadium through a gross-receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on stadium concessions, and an annual rent payment by the team. In the mean time, renovations will be made to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in time for opening day on April 15.

The total costs to finance both the renovations to RFK, and to build a new stadium on the Anacostia waterfront by 2008, have been estimated by city officials to be nearly $500 million. This is a price that many are not willing to pay.

Last Thursday, the council chambers overflowed with more than 220 people who signed up to testify at a public hearing on Williams’ controversial funding plan. Many were unhappy with the use of such tremendous revenue on a baseball stadium, when the city is in dire need of funding for other social infrastructure.

As an answer to the opposition, Williams announces a plan to create a community investment fund worth up to $400 million to build and renovate schools, public libraries, parks, and athletic facilities using the financial surplus generated by the new stadium.

“We’ve heard the call from our public to link our baseball initiative to continued support for other important priorities in the city, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Williams at his weekly news conference last week.

The City Council must act quickly if it is successfully approve legislation for stadium funding. In a Democratic primary held last month, three supporters of the plan were defeated by opponents of public funding for the stadium. These three primary winners, which include former mayor Marion Barry, are predicted to win the general election on Tuesday.

Many citizens are hoping that a prospective owner will instead opt to fund the stadium. In fact, DSG Baseball Group, led by Brian Saulsberry, testified at the hearing that it wants to pick up the cost of the stadium and the parking facilities, which would save the city about $104 million.

An owner willing to pay for the stadium costs would be much more popular among citizens, who revere owners such as Peter Magowan of the San Francisco Giants, who privately financed SBC Park, or Abe Pollin, who used no public money to build Washington’s other great sports venue, the MCI Center. As MLB proceeds in its decision making processes, choosing an owner will be crucial to the city’s response.

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