Williams working on private financing

WASHINGTON -- As the future of a Washington baseball team hangs in the balance, the mayor said Thursday it's still possible to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for a deal.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams said his administration is working to pull together private financing to win the vote of District of Columbia Council chairwoman Linda W. Cropp. An amendment she introduced requiring at least half the stadium funding come from private sources was declared "wholly unacceptable" by Major League Baseball officials.

"You can expect they're going to say the things they're saying," Williams said. "This is a business deal."

Cropp said all she wants is a way for the city to save money on the deal to build a $440 million ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront.

But before she offers any compromises, Cropp wants baseball to extend its deadline -- insisting it has nothing to lose.

"They have everything that they had requested basically," including a free baseball stadium, Cropp said. "By setting back the Dec. 31 deadline as truly an end point does absolutely no harm to Major League Baseball.

"That would be a move of good faith, I think, on their part to the district citizens," she said.

Cropp said new private financing proposals are coming in. One under consideration involves use of profits from parking near the stadium and another would transfer ownership of the stadium to a private group in a lease-back arrangement.

The city's chief financial officer is planning to issue a formal request for proposals early next week, said John Ross, senior adviser to CFO Natwar M. Gandhi. Only one proposal has been formally presented to the office so far, and it will take some time before new proposals can be reviewed because the process requires formal documentation, Ross said. Legislation allows the CFO 120 days to review the funding schemes.

"There is no way for the CFO's office to do their due diligence on these proposals, say, by the end of the year," Ross said.

Opponents of the stadium plan said it's up to baseball to keep things on track and called the league's response "unreasonable."

"We've gone way beyond the extra mile," said councilman Jim Graham, who voted against the deal. "I wasn't elected to come here and rubber stamp any proposal."

As for a possible compromise, Graham said the council is in the dark and would have to see what the mayor and baseball are willing to discuss.

Baseball supporters asked the public Thursday to call Cropp's office to help persuade her to change her vote. Councilmen Harold Brazil, Jack Evans and Vincent Orange held a news conference to highlight the strong points of the deal, including a community benefits package that could eventually bring $125 million for school construction and $45 million for libraries if the mayor's plan pans out.

They said businesses still support the fee that will be used to help pay for construction bonds, and they said Cropp had committed to vote for the package if businesses approved.

"Madame Chairman, come on back home," said Brazil, a lame duck who lost a September primary challenge.

Evans said after a day in limbo, it's clear the legislation would have to be changed at the council's final meeting of the year next Tuesday or baseball won't play in Washington.

Villanova University professor Rick Eckstein, who has studied baseball funding deals, said threats of ending the deal are all part of the negotiations.

"Someone's going to have to blink and swallow their pride a little bit," Eckstein said. "Since baseball has such an overwhelmingly lopsided deal in their favor, I think they're going to have to give a little bit."