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Over the next few weeks, the notion that private financing can defray the costs of building a new Nationals ballpark off South Capitol Street will likely head toward the junk heap.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has canceled a June 1 Committee on Finance and Revenue meeting scheduled to consider at least one financing plan.
The proposal, offered by Deutsche Bank and certified by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, is barely alive. The bank is willing to put up $246 million for stadium construction. The catch is this money doesn’t come free. The bank expects $18 million in annual payments collected from stadium revenues, and if those revenue streams dip below $18 million in any given year, the city pays the difference. Goodbye, Deutsche Bank.
The D.C. Council has asked Gandhi to take another look at several other deals, but a golden egg isn’t likely to appear on the CFO’s desk.
“Hopes for any kind of private financing plans are fading,” Council Chairman Linda Cropp says. “If we don’t see a…plan that has a strong consensus, I probably would not move it forward.”
It won’t move because Cropp can’t find the votes. And there’s a strong reason for that: No private group will sweep in and do the District a favor without getting something in return. Besides, Cropp can’t give stadium critics the chance to reopen the baseball deal and risk sending the Nationals to Puerto Rico or Mexico.
Count it as a big political setback for the council chairman, who late last year tied her political identity to private financing. In a three-month drama ending just before Christmas, Cropp made national headlines by slamming on the brakes in hopes of forcing a better baseball deal for city taxpayers. She maintained her support for baseball, but her new mantra became “Not at any cost.”
Forcing the council to consider private financing plans was the centerpiece of her cost-cutting scheme. She said Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his baseball posse had overlooked this approach, and that she was confident private involvement was possible.
Private financing is shaping up to be what critics of the idea have always said: too good to be true. A stadium financed by city bonds and a tax on businesses is looking more and more like the best deal. “When all is said and done, it looks like the most feasible, predictable way to go is to revert to public financing,” Evans says.
Where does all of this leave Cropp? Diminished.
Without a private-sector-based cost-cutting plan, Cropp is stranded in a kind of political no-man’s land. She holds little appeal for either baseball fans or naysayers, who argue that the city had enough attractions before the Nationals alighted on RFK Stadium.
Cropp got booed on Opening Night at RFK, even though she cast the deciding vote that brought the Nationals to town. She blames that on fans from Virginia and Maryland.
These days, Cropp’s campaign for a cost-effective ballpark isn’t nearly as public as it was late last year. She confers with Gandhi; she talks with Evans; she meets with the latest team trying to sell new private-financing proposals.
Her quest for an alternative to a publicly financed ballpark will end quietly. The council won’t even need to take a vote to kill the private-financing initiative, because the stadium bill passed last year doesn’t require a vote.
And Cropp wouldn’t dare bring a half-baked financing plan before the current baseball-unfriendly council. In January, the council seated three new members who campaigned against a publicly financed stadium and handily defeated incumbents who voted in favor of the deal. They have tilted the balance of power on the council vis-à-vis baseball-stadium financing.
Raising the issue now would open the cookie jar for those ballpark opponents. Cropp says she’s not sure she has the votes to block the favored plan of ballpark critics: building a new stadium on the RFK site. She knows Major League Baseball will only make a permanent D.C. home on South Capitol Street.
“I think that’s always a risk,” Evans says, adding that he’s not interested in a rerun of the big baseball showdown. “Insisting on an RFK site breaks the deal,” he says. If the Southeast stadium site fell off the table, Evans says, baseball owners would be lacing up their traveling shoes and booking flights to Las Vegas.
Without a private-financing deal, Cropp will get little credit for her stand against baseball owners during the upcoming political season. Here’s what folks will forget: She stood up to the rich, white baseball men and freed the city from paying exorbitant penalties if the stadium is not built on time. Cropp’s efforts also made it harder for baseball to leave the city in the lurch and reduced the tax burden on some businesses.
She disagrees with the notion that she has few political gains to show for her efforts.
“The more I talk to D.C. citizens, the more I am convinced I did the right thing,” she says. “I don’t go anywhere without people thanking me for that.”
ON THE EDGE
The open-air fifth-floor walkway at the John A. Wilson Building is one of the safest places in city hall.
Two Division of Protective Service (DPS) officers have been stationed there since activists from the group Mayday DC hopped over a glass barrier and onto a ledge high above the ground-floor lobby. The group was protesting the closure of a homeless shelter.
The city’s Office of Property Management (OPM) acted promptly after the incident. It extended the glass barrier next to the ledge by attaching plywood with C-clamps. The OPM also promised a permanent renovation that would make the ledge inaccessible.
More than five months after the last ledge-hopping episode, the plywood and the officers are still there.
In the meantime, the ledge guards have slipped into a familiar routine. On numerous occasions over the last two months, LL and other members of the press corps have seen them nodding off in the late-afternoon hours. More ambitious guards are reading books. Every Thug Needs a Lady, by Wahida Clark, appears to be popular among the security personnel these days.
DPS Chief Arnold Bracy concedes that the posting generates additional overtime expenses, depleting D.C. coffers. He did not provide a precise figure.
Peter May, deputy director of operations at the OPM, says the renovation isn’t behind schedule and pins the five-month wait on “normal government procurement issues.”
May says the security upgrade, like any other project, had to go through a competitive bidding process.
“We’re dealing with a historic building and the existing architecture,” he says.”It is not the simple matter of replacing a window on your house.”
EVANS’ INCREDIBLE WHITENESS OF BEING
A mysterious list of poll questions about a potential mayoral contender went out to city residents recently, and all signs point to Evans.
Dead Giveaway No. 1: several questions wondering if D.C. voters would elect a white mayor. Here’s a sample of one section of the poll as provided by a respondent:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement:
•I’m concerned whether or not a white mayor would help my part of the city.
•D.C. is a city with a majority black population. It should have a black mayor.
•I don’t think a white candidate can win.
•I would support a white mayor.
Evans often gets dismissed as a serious mayoral contender because he is white. D.C. is 60 percent black, according to the 2000 census. The conventional thinking goes that even many white D.C. voters recoil at the idea of backing the pale guy. Now he’ll have some numbers to give a better picture of how much whiteness matters in 21st-century D.C.
Evans’ volunteer adviser Chuck Thies says poll questions about race or gender are no big deal. “These [questions] are not out of the ordinary,” he says, but he adds, “We asked more questions about Tony Williams than we did about race.”
THE BOX SCORE
In last year’s great baseball debate, Chairman Linda Cropp’s council colleagues tended to choose a side early and stick with it. Those folks have emerged stronger politically. Here’s a scouting report on the big hitters in baseball politics:
•Mayor Williams is finally feeling the love in his box seats and Nats cap. He says fans from Maryland and Virginia account for 80 percent of ticket sales. The mayor can claim authorship of the District’s first indirect commuter tax. Williams has his legacy and a huge symbol of his administration’s success if he chooses to run again.
•The biggest booster of the publicly financed stadium deal, Ward 2’s Evans is a hero to the baseball crowd. After withstanding withering criticism from a small but vocal group who opposed public financing for a ballpark, Evans can claim a solid block of new supporters—beyond his friends in the business community. He maintains that stadium bonds financed by a gross-receipts tax on business is the best deal for the city. That arrangement seems likely to prevail.
•At-Large Councilmember David Catania has made baseball another platform on which to outcrunch the number crunchers. His battles with Gandhi over the cost estimate for purchasing the land at the proposed stadium site have only added to Catania’s reputation as the council’s most vicious and sharp-toothed watchdog. He’s pissed off some of his colleagues along the way but bolstered his reputation as a tireless fighter.
•Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty has been practically invisible during the debate over private-financing plans. He’s ceded the thankless and laborious task of challenging Gandhi to Catania. But Fenty’s unwavering opposition to public financing for the stadium won him fanatical backing from voters who think the city has higher priorities than pandering to baseball owners. Fenty has already mastered the “stadium vs. human needs” speech that will be the mainstay of his mayoral quest.
•Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is safe with his vote against the deal. Few in his ward will hold a grudge against a guy whose support for baseball hinged on money for libraries.
•Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, a self-proclaimed baseball fan, will benefit from her vote against the deal if she decides to run for council chair. The stadium plan still angers residents east of the Anacostia River.
•Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange never misses a chance to tout his support for the stadium plan. But his true commitment to baseball is in question after he posed with a driver in GolfStyles Washington magazine.
•Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose will have to deal with stadium construction and parking problems in her ward. Her vote in favor of the stadium plan prompted a now-moribund recall campaign.
•At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson could face a tough re-election bid in 2006. He voted against the stadium bill but feels more passionate about education and crime.
•At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz voted against the stadium plan but showed up in red for the Nats opener.
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