Washington, D.C., is a city of extremes. Dwarfed by the Federal Government and monuments honoring this country’s founders, it’s easy for the millions of tourists that pass through the city to ignore the deep-seated social problems.
The District is one of the most racially segregated urban areas in the nation. It contains some of the fanciest neighborhoods, home to the wealthiest, most powerful men in America, just a short walk away from the most neglected slums in the country. While some of the most prestigious private schools in the nation call D.C. home, the public education system in the Nation’s Capital is routinely underfunded, and the public library system is in shambles.
Enter Major League Baseball. After the 2004 season, Major League Baseball decided to move the struggling Montreal Expos out of Canada and back to the United States. One of the cities vying for the honor of its own Major League Baseball team was the District of Columbia. The District, which last played host to a Major League game in 1971, was chomping at the bit for a baseball team. Little did the residents realize what landing the team would mean.
In their relocation efforts, Major League Baseball, the once and current owners of the Washington Nationals née Montreal Expos, clearly had the upper hand. With four areas competing for a team, the big wigs in charge of relocation could demand certain terms from the city that ultimately won the team. If the city failed to make good on the deal, well, three other areas are still interested in landing their very own Major League Baseball team.
For Major League Baseball, one of the key terms of the deal was a publicly-funded stadium. Never mind that Major League Baseball would be awash in cash from the sale of Washington Nationals. Remember, MLB bought the Expos for $120 million and could sell the Nationals for upwards of $450 million. Never mind that a potential buyer may be willing to split the costs of the stadium.
No, for those running the show at Major League Baseball, the relocation of the Nationals presented these executives with an opportunity to flex their political muscles by demanding that the city to which they graciously award a team foots the bill for the new stadium this team requires. When MLB picked Washington, D.C., MLB executives were put to the test. Could they manipulate the City Council under the shadow of the federal government into paying for a pricey stadium that most economists agree would not return tangible economic benefits to the city?
Boy, were those executives ever up to the task. Originally, Major League Baseball negotiated the agreement with Mayor Anthony Williams. Mayor Williams agreed to the ridiculous condition that the District of Columbia would pick up the entire cost for building a stadium priced at $535 million along with nearly $20 million in renovations to the Metro stop that would service this new stadium. Major League Baseball, the organization that stands to net over $300 million when they finally sell the Nationals, would contribute zero, zilch, nada to this plan.
Well, surprise, surprise, the City Council, um, actually agreed to this deal. Then, a few of the pro-stadium council members were voted out of office, and the stadium negotiations devolved into the soap opera that has played itself out over the last year.
On Sunday, just hours before this stadium case could have gone to arbitration, Major League Baseball signed the latest iteration of the lease. On Monday, the Mayor signed the lease, and on Tuesday, the council, which seems to be receptive to this deal, will vote on the lease. Groundbreaking on the [Insert Corporate Name] Stadium could begin right around Opening Day 2006.
So after all of that political wrangling and back-and-forth between the Council and Major League Baseball, it’s reasonable to assume that maybe the Council worked out a better deal. Maybe Major League Baseball is going to help defray the costs of the stadium construction so that the Council can focus on pooring money into its school system or sagging infrastructure. Right? Right? No, sorry, you’re wrong.
In the latest version of the deal, Major League Baseball is completely and utterly screwing over the District of Columbia. The new lease limits public spending on the project to $611 million. Major League Baseball has offered to throw in a whopping $20 million to aid the project. Meanwhile, MLB was firm on its point that the new owner would not be asked to contribute to the project. Who cares if the new ownership group is willing to help pay? Don’t even think about it, says Major League Baseball.
In another twist, Bob DuPuy, the number two guy in Major League Baseball, asked the council to agree to a provision requiring the city not to enact any legislation that violates the term of the lease. When asked to elaborate, DuPuy could not.
Notably, the lease terms do call for contributions if the project costs more than $611 million. At that point, Major League Baseball or the new Nationals owners or someone else will step in with the money. You can bet that MLB will be putting full pressure on the architects to keep the cost of the stadium under that spending cap. Heaven forbid MLB spend its millions to build its own facilities.
So in the end, Major League Baseball gets its sweet deal. They get their publicly-funded stadium from a city that certainly could use the money for nearly anything else. The owners stand to profit handsomely from the deal, and the jury is still out as to whether or not this new stadium will revitalize an area sorely in need of revitalization.
In my opinion, this saga should have been more of a scandal. While it garnered its fair share of headlines, Major League Baseball was busy dealing with the steroid scandal, and the media glossed over the stadium debate. With this sad chapter in the business of baseball fading into the past, hopefully, Major League Baseball can now get to work on finding an ownership group with pockets deep enough to rebuild the Washington Nationals into a contending baseball team by the time the new stadium opens up in 2008. For $611 million in taxpayer money, the District of Columbia certainly better get a winner and soon.