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Stadium funding plan questioned

(Published June 16, 2003)

By GINA PONCE

Staff Writer

A proposal from Mayor Anthony A. Williams to build a new $338 million Major League Baseball stadium in the District has some residents excited about bringing baseball back to the nation’s capital and others questioning where the mayor’s priorities lie.

"So many needs go under-funded in D.C.," said Parisa Norouzi, community organizer for the Washington Innercity Self Help organization. "[The stadium] is wasteful spending and mismanagement and is an affront to the people of D.C."

But Chris Bender, communications director for the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, called the proposed new stadium a "tremendous economic development engine" that people should view as any other big economic development project.

Two sites that are being considered for the stadium are the intersections of South Capitol and M streets SE, near the Navy Yard, and New York and Florida avenues NE, near the under-construction New York Avenue Metro station. Under the mayor’s plan, Robert F. Kennedy Stadium would be renovated and used by the baseball team until the new ballpark was built.

A hearing June 12 before the D.C. City Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue gave citizens and government officials a chance to voice their opinions on the proposal, with many testifying on either side of the issue. Those in favor of the ballpark testified to the benefits it would bring to the District – such as jobs, new businesses and a sense of civil pride. Residents who voiced concerns over the project emphasized that a stadium is not something for which they want their tax dollars spent.

The city council is expected to vote on the financing plan on July 8. City officials are expected to make a final pitch to Major League Baseball officials later that month in their effort to lure the Montreal Expos to the District for the 2004 season.

"As taxpayers, my wife and I are not prepared to pay any price [for baseball]," testified Edward Cowan, a D.C. resident for 31 years. "The mayor’s proposal is too generous and we cannot be sure of the revenues and benefits."

Bender said that revenue bonds would be issued to finance construction and the stadium would end up paying for itself. Meanwhile, no money would be taken away from other areas to pay for the stadium, he said. Money produced from the ballpark also would help fund programs that residents need and demand, he said.

"People need to understand we’re not using any general revenue to pay for baseball," Bender said.

The projected earnings each year from a baseball team are estimated by the mayor’s administration to be $28 million and would come from three different areas. The mayor’s proposal anticipates receiving money from increased taxes on ballpark fees imposed on D.C. businesses with annual gross incomes of $3 million or more; increased sales tax on concessions, tickets and parking at the stadium; and a tax on ballplayers’ salaries.

In written testimony presented by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, the CFO questioned the uncertainty of taxing tickets sold on the Internet – a common way of purchasing tickets for many events. Gandhi also mentioned the possibility of having a losing team, which may result in lower attendance, resulting in less ticket revenue than projected.

"There are a lot of unsolved questions," said Jeff Coudriet, an aide to Councilman Jack Evans, who chairs the Finance and Revenue Committee. "The city does have limited resources and the council needs to look at what its priorities are."

Coudriet said that everyone needs to look at the overall costs of the stadium.

"I can find better uses for taxes than baseball," Councilwoman Sandra Allen said. "If we can tax a baseball stadium, why can’t we raise taxes for those who need a helping hand?"

Winston Lord, a native Washingtonian and executive director of the Washington Baseball Club, said he believes that having a baseball team would bring more visitors into the city and would be an important component of civic unity.

"This is a program that is responsible," Lord said. "The funds will not be competing with money for other issues."

Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network, said he is among residents who support the return of baseball to the District but not a new taxpayer-financed stadium.

"We want baseball, but we want to make sure that the funding package that comes out of the council doesn’t negatively affect [other programs]. We can’t afford to make a mistake with this," he said.

D.C. residents also expressed concern during the hearing about the track record of new baseball stadiums in other cities and their economic impact.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, addressed that concern in a recent study of 25 stadiums built between 1978 and 1992, which found that the public cost was not balanced by generating enough tax revenue.

Norouzi said she believes the mayor should be concentrating on improving city services as the best way to improve economic conditions and attract more residents to the District, rather than building a new stadium.

"The mayor is out of touch with the real need of the community," she said. "Our main message is: We want a strong safety net. We don’t want a stadium."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator