The key question being asked by MLB's spurned suitors in Portland, Las Vegas, and other cities: Is there is gas left in the tank for future relocation or expansion for those that didn’t win the Expos?
By Maury Brown
There are no gold medals for finishing second in sports. Silver medallists are normally an afterthought: Few remember which team lost last year’s Super Bowl. And, in baseball, the team that loses the World Series is frequently no more than the answer to a trivia question.
Washington, D.C., won the relocation derby for the Montreal Expos on Wednesday, September 29, 2004. If you’re a trivia buff, the time of the award was most likely 4:05 p.m. EDT.
After more than two years of the relocation derby that started after MLB purchased the Montreal Expos, did any of the other cities and parties involved actually get anything out of taking second place? Was there an upside? Was it all a waste? Does baseball have any value in eyes of the remaining suitors? When the wheels came off on the other bids, how did it happen?
How Northern Virginia went from highly favored to NoVa
Surely, the Northern Virginia group felt the sting more than any of the others.
Having just missed acquiring the Astros in 1995, and having poured more than $13 million into this effort, swallowing the pill had to have been especially bitter for William Collins and the rest of the Virginia Baseball Club. Given the proximity to Washington, Collins, Brian Hannigan, Gabe Paul Jr., and the others in the Northern Virginia are keeping the shingle out, but only in the event of a total collapse in DC. Haggard, tired, and with a checkbook bleeding red, they must be finding little solace in second place. A sign on the door reading, “Gone Fishing: Used for Leverage by MLB” would have been a fitting end.
If the Washington team is successful, few will remember years from now that it could have been quite the opposite.
Some MLB owners were fully in Bill Collins’ corner. He’d labored relentlessly to bring Major League Baseball to Virginia for years, spending with abandon. All the Lords knew that, without Collins, the competing effort in the District would, most likely, have never been mounted.
Allegiance to those outside the close circle of big league owners, however, got checked at the door.
Pitting Washington versus Northern Virginia was designed to gin up the ballpark deals and thus, ultimately, the franchise bids--the latter being the most important matter to MLB.
Arlington County kills hope for Pentagon City
The Pentagon City location in Arlington was a dandy site, but it was a battle from the start. While Peter Angelos had said that he was opposed to placing a team in both D.C. and Northern Virginia, if push came to shove, this site could have allowed the Lords an out with Angelos while still retaining a center field view of the most prominent Washington monuments across the Potomac. It could have worked as a compromise solution.
The NIMBYs in Arlington mounted a heated door-to-door battle arguing that the traffic would kill the livability of the area--and that was just the kindling for the fire. The owners of the property, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the H Street Building Corporation said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” They could make far, far more doing mixed-use development.
To pound the point home, the landowners commissioned a poll backing what the NIMBYs had been saying all along. Sixty-four percent of Arlington voters were deeply skeptical about a major league ballpark’s benefits and were opposed to its location in Arlington.
Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA), bristled when he received word of the poll. “[The poll was the work of] a developer … who has no interest in the well-being of Arlington or its residents ... They are only concerned with their bottom line."
Shooting back, John Barron, a lawyer representing both the Cafritz and H Street Building Corp. landowners said, "We are proceeding with our own development plans and have asked to be deleted from any [ballpark] site list. County officials should take note of that view when they decide how to proceed."
Still, the VBSA and the Virginia Baseball Club (VBC) pressed on. “No” didn’t exactly mean “No” to them. The property owners and the people of Arlington County just didn’t see the benefits they were turning down.
Finally, after mounting pressure, the Arlington County Board drove the final nail into the coffin on July 18, 2004 ,by sending a letter to the VBSA explaining that an MLB Stadium was unwanted in their county–period.
"If there was a general consensus that a Baseball Stadium was desired by Arlington residents, it might be possible to overlook the economic advantages of competing development opportunities," County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson wrote VBSA Chairman Michael R. Frey in the letter. "It is the judgment of the County Board that although there are numerous supporters of the baseball stadium concept, there are at least as many opposed with little hope of reaching consensus with the opposition."
Not content to leave it at that, Ferguson got a last dig in on the Lords, "The arrogance of Major League Baseball is unbelievable."
Although the Northern Virginia movement made a half-hearted effort to get back into Arlington County (knowing full well that site across the Potomac from the District was the key for MLB), they ultimately had to go with what they had left. So they tried to make lemonade out of lemons in a new site further out near the airport.
Along came Dulles
The first problem with the Dulles site was its location: more than 25 miles from central Washington. Dulles was, by the Northern Virginia group’s own admission, the least favored of all their prospective sites.
So the VBSA and VBC went into spin mode. Loudoun County and the Northern Virginia suburbs were some of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Collins and company touted the A.C. Neilsen Dominant Market Area (DMA) and never once mentioned “District of Columbia” in the press conference unveiling the site. Removing the District and its Maryland suburbs from the equation effectively left them with a market of only about 2.3 million people and less than 900,000 TV households. "We've always looked south and west of the [Potomac]," Collins said. "Nothing has really changed there. In this area, you do not want to cross any bridges." They also glossed over the fact that traffic would be an issue, especially in light of the fact that the earliest projected date for pubic transportation access to the site via a Metro line was still a decade off.
What was the upside for the far off location? Distance from Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles. Collins worked the angle from behind the mike. "60 miles and two hours from Camden Yards. I urge [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos to endorse this site."
VBSA also claimed to have the full support of the Loudoun County government, as well as a pending contract to buy part of the needed land. It made for good PR, but it was really nothing but smoke and mirrors. Major League Baseball had always been played in urban settings, and Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards provided the template for renewed interest in downtown ballparks after decades of dominance by cookie-cutter, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Dulles site flew in the face of this trend.
No matter, the Northern Virginia groups said, “If we can’t do a ballpark in the city, we’ll bring the city to the ballpark.” So they christened the site the "Virginia's Ballpark at Diamond Lake" development.
Bordered by Route 28, the Dulles Toll Road, Old Ox Road, Rock Hill Road and the Fairfax County border, Diamond Lake was a 450-acre site composed of 50 separate parcels. Samir Kawar a business investor and former Jordanian government minister owns by far the largest piece with 220 acres. The plan was to use 12 acres of the site for the ballpark, surrounding it with restaurants, hotels, condominiums and offices. Since a large part of the site was a quarry owned by Kawar’s Chantilly Crushed Stone, the plan was to fill the quarry with water to make the resulting man-made lake the centerpiece–the “lake” in "Diamond Lake." However, Kawar’s attorney in May 2003 ominously signaled, “A baseball stadium isn't exactly high on the list [for the site]."
A development group was pulled together to head up the entire effort. The Beazer, Centex and Van Metre companies were three prominent developers that had experience tackling large jobs. These three comprised the newly formed Diamond Lake Associates.
The plan was two-fold. Diamond Lake Associates would concentrate on land acquisition and development in the areas that would be shared by the stadium and the other development (parking, utilities, and zoning). By doing this, the proposed cost of the stadium would be reduced by $82 million from $442 million, avoiding the need to enact any local hospitality tax. That made the ballpark price $360 million.
The plan was daring and bold, as well as Virginia’s only choice after being locked out of Arlington. The funding model still had a considerable owner-equity component that totaled one third of the total cost through rent payments. MLB would assuredly look down their nose at that ownership contribution. After all, that would lower the price that prospective owners could pay MLB for the franchise. Still, the site renderings were stunning, the area's disposable income was very high, and the 60 miles from Camden Yards might be enough to keep Angelos quiet and push the D.C. effort further still on their plans. Although the whole plan smelled of a pyramid scheme, it seemed to work--at least, on paper.
On July 1, 2004, the Fairfax Times ran the headline: “Land acquisition for stadium on target.” Things were going swimmingly with obtaining all the parcels needed to create the city that had to be developed alongside the stadium. Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel, one of the primary developers within Diamond Lake Associates, said that the ballpark site property was under contract. "We're far down the road with assembling the other properties."
After all, time was running short as another self-imposed MLB deadline for the decision on relocating the Expos was slated for the All-Star game on the July 18. As the other principal, Laurence "Larry" Bensignor said, "Major League Baseball is in a hurry. When opportunity knocks, you respond." Trouble was, they weren’t even close to getting the land acquired.
A month later, the bottom started to drop out of the Dulles site. Diamond Lake was going to have to go without its centerpiece lake. Diamond Lake Associates had not been able to reach agreement with Kawar, the owner of Chantilly Crushed Stone, the site's largest parcel. An embarrassed Gabe Paul Jr., backpedaled on the month-old claim that land acquisition was on-pace, even though the relocation committee had been assured that "most of the land parcels comprising this stunning 450-acre site" was controlled by project developers. "At the present time, we are moving on without the [Chantilly Crushed Stone] property," Paul said.
Ultimately, the hole in the ground that was the quarry swallowed up Northern Virginia’s hopes. Baseball analysts saw the seriousness of the matter; it was truly a deal-breaker. Yet, somehow the Dulles site remained on the radar screen in the national press. The Diamond site would be rough going, the pundits opined, but MLB might still choose it to keep Peter Angelos at bay.
House Speaker William Howell, Senate Finance Chairman John Chichester, and Governor Mark Warner kill VBSA's chances
Time was running short to lock in the funding for the Dulles site.
For once, MLB looked like it was actually getting serious about ending the Expos saga. By now, Washington had said that it could cover the entire tab for a ballpark site adjacent to RFK Stadium, and it was exploring further options. The Northern Virginia group had to work on their bid while watching both the clock and the scoreboard.
Senate Bill 945, passed in 1995, allowed the newly created VBSA to use state funds to build a ballpark in Virginia and to retain certain income and sales taxes. On January 28, 2004, as the Virginia legislature slogged through a marathon 119-day session, many of the powerful lawmakers had had enough of MLB’s drawn-out process and decided to try some hardball of their own.
A House Finance subcommittee voted not to extend the Virginia Stadium Authority's right to those revenues to 2008, as proposed in House Bill 50. Therefore, on December 31, 2004, those key funds would dry up. It was now or never for Virginia baseball.
House Speaker William Howell had voted in favor of the creation of the VBSA in 1995. He changed his tune on August 11, saying that he would not vote in favor of using the state’s “moral obligation” to back the construction bonds. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as MLB had finally decided to get cracking and had scheduled back-to-back meetings with the Washington and Northern Virginia groups. The meeting with D.C. went 11 1/2 hours, an ominous sign for Virginia.
The following day, when the relocation committee traveled to Northern Virginia, they faced more opposition. That same day, Senate Finance Committee Chairman and President Pro Tempore John H. Chichester joined with the opposition. Moral obligation bonds "were not developed to help private enterprise," said Chichester.
An unimpressed Jerry Reinsdorf and the relocation committee gave the Northern Virginia group three hours. The end was near.
Governor Mark Warner sat on his hands, remaining noncommittal during all of this. Never active in helping the baseball effort during this stretch run, Warner started to slip out from behind the matter. "[I’m] a longtime supporter of bringing baseball to Virginia," he said. "I also realize that it's essential that Virginia strikes the best deal possible that protects the Virginia taxpayer. Many deals in the past have not adequately protected the investment of the state and the local communities."
House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., summed it up on Sept. 14. "It can't fly without him, and he's been out front in terms of getting baseball for Virginia. I hope he doesn't get cold feet at this 11th hour."
Unfortunately for Northern Virginia's hopes, Governor Warner started pushing for “other options.”
On September 23, Selig convened the MLB's Executive Committee in Milwaukee to get the Expos situation sorted out. He wanted a vote on the relocation committee’s recommendation, now clearly in Washington's favor. What came out of the meeting was not a vote. Committee members Fred Wilpon of the Mets, Peter Magowan of the Giants and, apparently, John Ellis of the Mariners were siding with Angelos. They backed the Baltimore owner as a matter of self-interest: If it could happen to Baltimore, it could happen in New York, New Jersey, or in Portland.
It didn’t matter. MLB had run now out of options. Northern Virginia was now “NoVa”–no go.
Six days later, MLB made it official. DC had been awarded the Expos. The Northern Virginia bid had failed. Bill Collins blamed Virginia's top government officials: "The withdrawal of the moral obligation of the Commonwealth of Virginia to stand behind the stadium bonds, expressed as the will of the General Assembly in our financing plan which was enacted into law in 1995, eliminated the relocation of Major League Baseball to the Commonwealth," Collins said. "After this critical aspect of our plan was stripped from our proposal, the Virginia Baseball Club stepped up to provide political and financial certainty by guaranteeing the financing and construction of the new ballpark in Virginia.
"Unfortunately, it was too late in the process and Virginia has lost the most significant economic opportunity in a decade."
Conceding the loss, a bitter Collin’s released some news that had not been public previously, but had been widely speculated. MLB’s relocation committee explicitly told Virginia officials in an August 25 meeting that Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to put the Expos in Northern Virginia. Virginia had “had the team.”
Because of its proximity, Northern Virginia will never get an MLB team as long as there is a team in Washington. As for Collins and his group of investors, they’re still going after the Expos, even if they will end up playing in Washington. MLB asked them to bid on the franchise, which will pit investors against each other to drive up the franchise cost.
Whether the “Used for Leverage” sign will reappear on Collins' door in the future, only time will tell.
Edited by John Ruoff and Gary Gillette.