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Northern Virginia Out Front In Competition

Guest Thomas Kay

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Guest Thomas Kay

Developers, often reviled, improved their image markedly yesterday with Major League Baseball fans in Northern Virginia.


Standing with state and local officials, a consortium of developers announced they are willing to spend millions to reduce the cost of construction of a ball park near Dulles International Airport--and billions to make that site viable as a home for the Montreal Expos.


It makes Northern Virginia the first bidder to fully finance a ball park for the franchise's relocation.


Developers plan a mammoth recreational, shopping, dining, lodging, residential and office space complex to be called Diamond Lake should baseball choose the site.


Three companies, Beazer, Centex and Van Metre, said they will pay $82 million for ball park infrastructure. The Northern Virginia plan guarantees full public-private funding for a ball park--baseball's top prerequisite for awarding the franchise. Supporters say it will not require any new taxes.


During a press conference, Larry Bensinger of Diamond Lakes Association and the Van Metre Cos. said the 42,500-seat ball park would sit on the edge of a manmade lake, making the area a tourist destination.


The name Diamond Lake came from the idea of a baseball diamond on a lake, he said.


"Diamond Lake will be a new paradigm for Major League Baseball," Bensinger said. "It's not in the middle of nowhere," he said, responding to D.C. critics of the idea of a ball park in Loudoun. "Diamond Lake is filling the hole in the doughnut."


Officials said ball park construction would be completed by 2008, with the team playing at RFK Stadium in Washington until that date. They also said Metrorail is expected to run to Dulles and Diamond Lake by 2012, lessening traffic problems.


Northern Virginia is competing for the Expos, now operated by major league owners, with Washington, Portland, Ore., Norfolk, Las Vegas and Monterrey, Mexico.


Baseball has had success in recent years with downtown ball parks.


Washington had been considered the leader in recent weeks because of its downtown ball park proposal and a promise from Mayor Anthony Williams that he would push a plan for a business tax hike through a hesitant City Council to pay for it.


But Loudoun is the fastest-growing county in the nation, with a Board of Supervisors that is now unabashedly pro-growth.


Most members of the Loudoun board attended yesterday's announcement, hooting and hollering along with county economic development staff, virtual cheerleaders at the event.


There was laughter when Keith Frederick, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, said, "It's great to be welcome," in apparent reference to problems encountered last year with the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.


"There is no other place that has what we have here," Frederick said. "The political will to get it done [and] a baseball stadium funding plan that is ready to go."


"The message to Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners in baseball is very, very simple," Frederick said. "We have your new fans here, we have your stadium deal here, and we've got a great site here."


Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos has strongly opposed relocation of a team in the D.C. area because, he says, it will hurt his team at the gate.


Bill Collins, the leader of the Virginia Baseball Club trying to buy the Expos, made reference to that hurdle.


"We have an outstanding ball park site well beyond 60 miles and two hours away from Camden Yards," he said.


Collins then shouted for emphasis, "And I urge Peter Angelos to endorse this site."


Bruce E. Tulloch, vice chairman of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, was ecstatic.


"Diamond Lake will generate substantial tax revenue and economic benefits for the county," he said. "It will not require one nickel of Loudoun County tax dollars, and Loudoun County is looking at billions in construction spending, millions in tax revenues and thousands of new jobs."


The state will also benefit.


As an economic development package, legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1997 allows the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority to pay for two-thirds of the cost of a ball park, but requires that private interests pay one third of the cost.


Last year, the team owners would have been required to pay about $133 million in stadium equity costs up front. Now, the team would be asked to pay $10 million a year in ball park rent, said stadium authority executive director Gabe Paul.


This means the Virginia Baseball Club ownership group would have the funds to pay the kind of price for the franchise that baseball wants to recoup its losses from operating the Expos. It also would leave the club with more money for salaries for free agents, meaning it could soon be competitive in the National League East.


"This was an important part for Major League Baseball," Paul said. "We found a way to have the team only pay rent."


Frederick said baseball officials have told him the deadline for a decision is now the end of August. That would seem to provide an opening for Mayor Williams and the District to attempt to get City Council and congressional approval for their own stadium financing plan.


Loudoun Board Chairman Scott K. York was misty-eyed at the prospect of baseball in his back yard. He recalled watching Willie Mays and Willie McCovey play at Candlestick Park as a boy.


"Hopefully," York said, "this will become a site for families to come and share experiences of a lifetime."

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