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Heading for Home Stretch

Less than a month before Expos decision, local supporters and opponents get ready.

It’s all over but the waiting. After more than a decade of attempts to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Northern Virginia, Bill Collins thinks he’s in the home stretch.

“We believe our time is about to come,” said Collins, Chairman and CEO of the Virginia Baseball Club, a group of investors trying to buy the Montreal Expos. Collins has led the group for over a decade in efforts to bring baseball to Northern Virginia.

On Wednesday, June 18, Collins made his pitch to reporters. Two days later, members of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority held their final meeting with baseball’s Relocation Committee, before the committee is expected to decide the Expos’ fate.

Earlier that same week, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 7-1 to adopt a resolution, sponsored by Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), opposing a Springfield stadium.

The decision at the board’s Monday, June 16, meeting, could rule out one of five proposed sites for a stadium in Northern Virginia, leaving three sites in Arlington and one in western Fairfax, close to Dulles International Airport.

This Thursday, June 26, Kauffman will speak against the stadium at a public meeting at Washington-Lee High School. Anti-stadium activists are hoping to use the meeting as a show of strength in efforts to oppose a stadium.

Virginia is competing with Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., for the team, currently owned by Major League Baseball. An announcement on the sale and relocation of the team is expected on July 15.

All efforts at opposing a Virginia stadium, Collins said, “turns around the day Major League Baseball says, ‘We’re coming to Northern Virginia.’”

WHILE BOTH SIDES marshalled their forces last week, baseball supporters saw the end of the proposal process last week, as Authority members met with the Major League Baseball representatives.

Last Friday’s meeting was the last chance for Stadium Authority officials and Mitchell Ziets, one of their financial consultants, to pitch the benefits of a Northern Virginia Stadium to three members of Major League Baseball’s relocation committee.

With Jonathan Mariner, Baseball’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, on hand, talks focused heavily on how a new stadium would be funded, which Virginia baseball supporters have long considered their ace in the hole against Portland and the District.

“A variety of issues were discussed,” said Brian Hannigan, a spokesperson for the Authority. “The financing plans received a lot of attention, as we expected they would. They want to sort through what is real, what is in place, and what is not, with all the applicants. That is something we’re happy to talk about.”

Land acquisition and construction costs are estimated at $400 million. Authority officials say existing state laws and the partnership with Virginia Baseball Club provide for 92 percent of the stadium’s funding. Collins’ group would provide about one-third of the costs, and the remaining funds would come from 30-year bonds, paid off with money coming from the stadium.

Opponents to an Arlington stadium continue to warn against those projections. “I think it’s too much public money involved,” said Sarah Summerville, founder and leader of the No Arlington Stadium Coalition. “I think it will cost taxpayers a lot of money.

Summerville’s group has scheduled an economic summit July 9 at Gunston Theater, hoping to refute Stadium Authority funding estimates before the July 15 decision.

EVEN IF BASEBALL officials award the team to Virginia next month, the battle over where to build a stadium would continue, and public opinion could play a role. Stadium plans would have to go through the complete public review process that County Board member Jay Fisette recently called “thorough, inclusive and slow.”

At last week’s media luncheon, there were signs of extra effort to appeal to the public. “Most important is the people it will affect,” said Collins.

Baseball backers are counting on a July 15 announcement to tip public opinion drastically in their favor. Changing minds in a wait-and-see environment has proved difficult thus far.

“There is a very deep-seated resistance to the notion that it’s really going to happen this time,” said Hannigan. “We think that public officials who have taken a wait-and-see attitude are fully justified. Chairman Ferguson has himself used the analogy to Lucy and the football, and we fully understand why there’s this skepticism.”

The analogy to the “Peanuts” comic strip, made by County Board Chair Paul Ferguson, refers to his belief that MLB has dangled teams in front of the D.C.-region for decades, only to pull back the opportunity at the last minute.

FOOTBALL AND BASEBALL are linked in ways beyond Ferguson’s analogy. “We’re behind bringing baseball to this region,” said Art Monk, one of several new investors Collins recently asked to join the VBC.

The presence of Monk, a popular former Washington Redskins wide receiver, in the baseball effort could help appeal to sports fans throughout the region. Charles Mann, a former Redskins defensive end, is another new addition to the VBC, one of several minorities Collins has enlisted.

“I think what they’ve been doing is still trying to pick up public support,” said Summerville. “I don’t think that bringing in more investors is going to sway the Major League owners, because the substantial piece to their plan is public dollars.”

There have not been any formal decisions about which of the five proposed sites are preferred, said Gabe Paul, Stadium Authority executive director. But attention has focused on Arlington, in particular the undeveloped lot on Army-Navy Drive near the Pentagon, know as the Cafritz site.

A Vienna-based developer, KSI Services, has filed site plans for a massive residential and office complex on the site with the county, which could eliminate the possibility of a stadium – especially since an attorney for the developer has stated the owners’ disinterest in pursuing the site for a stadium.

But Collins said that a ballpark on the site “would become part of this neighborhood,” rather than dwarfing it. The proposed buildings, he said, were “sterile,” while a stadium would add life to the neighborhood.

But some stadium opponents have already gotten behind KSI’s plans as an alternative to a stadium. “Our community is definitely opposed to the stadium,” said Rich Pforte, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association. “We would much prefer to have the regular development there.”

“If we weren’t already there talking about a baseball stadium, they would be known as the ‘No More Crystal City Apartment Buildings Coalition,’” Hannigan countered.