After months of complaints and uncertainty, Paul Ferguson finally had enough. Last week the County Board chair took action that could end hopes for Major League Baseball in Arlington.
In a letter to Michael Frey, Chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, Ferguson asked that the county be removed from the list of possible stadium sites.
The Authority, along with a group of investors headed by former Milwaukee Brewer and telecommunications executive Bill Collins, have been working to convince MLB officials to move the Montreal Expos to the Commonwealth. Three of five potential stadium sites named by the Authority are located in Arlington.
In his letter to Frey, Ferguson listed five reasons why he was asking the Authority to end consideration of Arlington stadium sites:
*Major League Baseball was dragging its feet on a decision to move the Expos, he wrote;
*Arguments over where to build a stadium were causing divisiveness in the community;
*The owner of the favored stadium site, the Cafritz Foundation, is unwilling to sell;
*Meanwhile, the county hopesto move forward with negotiations with Cafritz for a conference center on that site.
*What’s more, Ferguson wrote, a stadium doesn’t make economic sense for Arlington, since a conference center next to a proposed residential development could generate up to $10.6 million dollars for the county, compared to $3.4 million from a stadium.
Following a closed meeting late Thursday night, Ferguson discussed the letter with individual board members. All but Jay Fisette signed on. Contrary to reports in the Washington Post, Ferguson says the baseball issue was not discussed in closed session. "[The Post reporter] made an assumption rather than asking the question," Ferguson said.
The meeting was called to discuss acquisition of land for a high-tech conference center, which could be built in Pentagon City on land considered to be the prime location for a stadium.
FISETTE SUPPORTED conference center plans. "My view was, however, that we could go ahead and pursue our options around a conference center… and we didn’t have to pull the plug on baseball," he said.
But baseball supporters and opponents alike are questioning whether Ferguson’s letter really does pull the plug. "All the sites remain under consideration," said Brian Hannigan, a spokesperson for the Stadium Authority. "We have deliberately not narrowed our options."
But Hannigan admitted that the Board’s action creates a "challenging political situation" that will demand quick action from Major League Baseball. "We have not missed our chance," he said. "The window is there, but the window is not indefinite."
"It’s not over," said Tom Brooke, co-chair of the Arlington Baseball Coalition. "Certainly we’re in the ninth inning, if not the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs."
Sarah Summerville, leader of the No Arlington Stadium Coalition and Independent candidate for county board, called Ferguson’s action a victory for stadium opponents but said the fight is far from over.
Fisette is more inclined to see Ferguson’s letter as a nail in the coffin for Arlington baseball. As to whether board members will revisit the baseball issue, "There’s a very short answer to that. It’s one word, two letters," Fisette said.
DELAYS FROM BASEBALL executives may have provided the impetus for Ferguson’s decision to call a stop to the process.
"How long can you allow an issue to divide the community," he asked, "when we have so many other things that we need to be unified on. I’m hoping that with time, people on both sides will begin working together again, possibly on other issues completely unrelated."
Major League Baseball’s relocation committee planned to make a recommendation by July 15, the last day of the All Star Break. But that date passed without a decision, and baseball executives reportedly made flippant comments when asked when a decision come.
"The arrogance of Major League Baseball is unbelievable," wrote Ferguson in his letter to Frey. "Whether one is for or against baseball in Northern Virginia, this type of statement is an insult to our community."
But even calls for unity drew criticism. "This whole bit about ‘We don’t like divisiveness in the community’—that sounds like [George Orwell’s] ‘1984’ to me," said Brooke.
Fisette agreed in principle, saying that avoiding debate isn’t part of the Arlington Way. "I can trust the system and the people to deal with these issues, and deal with them civilly," he said.
FERGUSON’S ACTION DREW allegations of back-room deals that circumvent the public process. "They’re working hand-in-glove with the developers on this," said Brooke. Comments from U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) at a recent anti-stadium rally made the board’s action even more questionable, he said.
Moran surprised the crowd by announcing that he would be the only member of the Northern Virginia Congressional delegation not to support baseball. He went on to say that after having conversations with county board members, including Ferguson, he was confident that the board was prepared to vote against any stadium proposal.
"He knew the drill," said Brooke. "They told him. Back-room, closed-door, scratch-your-back deals."
Ferguson denies that any decision was made prior to last week and said Moran’s comments were inaccurate.
"Jim Moran really has no business talking about what the Arlington County board is going to do," said board vice-chair Barbara Favola.
STADIUM AUTHORITY officials are still discussing what steps to take next.
If Virginia wins out over competing bids from the District and Portland, Ore., the Authority could still try to purchase one of the Arlington sites not scheduled for the conference center — either the Costco site in Pentagon City or River Place in Rosslyn.
Two sites in Fairfax County remain on the table also, said Hannigan, even though Fairfax County Supervisors have voted to oppose a stadium. Major League Baseball could make the relocation decision by the end of the year.