Let the Games Begin: D.C. City Council approves stadium lease for the Washington Nationals

By Carla Peay
Updated: February 9, 2006

Washington Nationals star outfielder Jose Guillen. Photo by John E. DeFreitas.

Washington Nationals star outfielder Jose Guillen. Photo by John E. DeFreitas.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—“As all of you know who stayed up late last night, the council approved the baseball lease agreement. I believe that the deal was a great one for the district and over time, I believe that everyone in this city will come to see it that way, as we’ve come to see the MCI Center investment and as we’ve come to see the Convention Center investment”, said D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams in his weekly press conference on Wednesday morning.

“For those of you who’ve looked around the country, look at what the investment in baseball stadiums has done in San Diego, in San Francisco, in Denver Colorado. I’m looking forward to the next part of the process which is the groundbreaking this spring, and we’re looking forward to opening day in April. It’s like those old movies with a B17. It wasn’t a pretty landing, but we brought the thing in”, he added.

No doubt, these were words Mayor Williams has been hoping to say for the better part of a year. The D.C. city council spent the majority of Tuesday, and on into Wednesday morning voting on the proposed stadium lease for the Washington Nationals. At approximately 11pm, the breaking news announcements were made on the local evening news. The city council had rejected the lease by a vote of 8-5. Stadium opponents claimed victory on behalf of the already over-burdened taxpayers. Baseball fans feared that Major League Baseball might move the team they have come to love after one short year. Politicians from northern Virginia were lying in wait to see if they could entice MLB to move the team across the river. Anyone up for the Virginia Nationals?

But in an 11th hour move completely in keeping with the way the stadium deal has been handled from day one, the city council decided to keep talking. Council chair Linda Cropp called for a second vote. And shortly before 1am, the stadium lease was voted on again and was approved this time by a vote of 9-4. The council had asked for, and received, a number of concessions from Major League Baseball designed to benefit district residents. Some of those concessions include the funding of a youth baseball academy for D.C. school children, 10,000 free Nationals tickets to low-income residents, and two-thirds of parking revenue on non-game days.

Singing the praise of Cropp’s leadership and Mayor Williams’ efforts was city councilmember Jack Evans.

“Without her steadfastness and her ability to pull people together, we would never have gotten this done”, Evans said of Cropp. “We also need to thank Mayor Williams for his vision in getting baseball into town in the first place and for all the hard work that he and his staff have done”, he added. Evans drew laughter from the press and the mayor’s staff with a few pointed comments about his fellow council members who voted against the lease.

“This is a very, very reasonable deal for the District of Columbia. You’ve heard my colleagues, particularly those opposed to it go on and on about how this is the worst deal they’ve ever seen. Keep in mind it’s the only deal most of them have ever seen”, Evans said. The bottom line, Evans pointed out, is that D.C. taxpayers are not financing the stadium. The cost of the stadium will be paid by the rent from the team, federal utility tax payments, a tax on large businesses, and levy on ticket sales and concessions. The lease agreement puts a cap on stadium costs which most recent estimates list at around $611 million.

Now that the council has approved the lease, Major League Baseball must approve it as well. A vote by MLB is tentatively scheduled to take place on March 6th. Assuming MLB approves the lease, they can move ahead with selecting a new ownership group. Mayor Williams was also generous in his praise of the hard work of the council, particularly Linda Cropp, who seems to have skillfully managed to satisfy potential district voters for her upcoming mayoral run by being against some elements of the stadium project, then working hard to get the lease approved.

One other issue that remains to be settled is the securing of the land needed at the new stadium site. There is a hearing tentatively scheduled on February 24th to settle the outstanding ‘transfer of possession’ issues with the remaining land the city still needs to acquire to build the stadium. Even if this process is delayed, the city can still go ahead and begin groundbreaking on the land it already owns.

“I think baseball has come to see Washington as a tremendous opportunity to make inroads into the African American community in a city with a proud African American culture and history and a rich and diverse community of all different backgrounds. Some of the people that we’ve dealt with have really personally committed themselves to diversifying baseball”, Mayor Williams added, noting that Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who will be a major player in assisting Commissioner Bud Selig in selecting the Nationals owner, has a Latino manager, Ozzie Guillen, and a black general manager, Kenny Williams.

With the lease agreement signed and the process finally moving forward, perhaps the baseball pundits in this town can discuss the real news of the day. The Nationals made a one-year contract offer to the artist formerly known as Slammin’ Sammy Sosa. Let the games begin.