By David Johnston
Major-league baseball isn't likely to insist on a deadline this week for resolution of the Expos' proposed downtown stadium project, given that an independent consultant hired to examine the project's viability said yesterday that he's still in the process of collecting basic data.
It has been widely reported that the Expos were facing an effective deadline of late May, which is when baseball puts together its playing schedule for the next season. The schedule has to be submitted to the players' association for approval by July 1.
Robert Starkey, the independent consultant named early last month, said in an interview from his Minneapolis office that he hasn't finished assessing the three proposals that have been submitted by three Montreal engineering firms for a facility that would cost $175 million.
Officials of major-league baseball had no comment yesterday.
Starkey's nomination as an independent observer was approved both by senior officials of major-league baseball and the Expos' ownership group spearheading the new stadium project. The group is also working to buy out managing partner Claude Brochu and bring in new investors, including a new majority owner in the form of New York art-dealer Jeffrey Loria.
Major-league baseball doubts a viable stadium, with improved revenue-generating potential, can be built for $175 million, while the owners group says it has three proposals demonstrating it is possible. Starkey's opinion, as an independent observer, will play a key role in the Expos' future.
Loria, meanwhile, said yesterday from his New York office that it is not true, as one published report last week suggested, that he is sending his son, David, a financial expert, to Montreal this week to look at the Expos' books.
On Feb. 18, the dissident owners, led by club chairman Jacques Menard, held a press conference to say they had new investors willing to put up $125 million. But very little of that money is to be put into a new stadium, said Menard on March 24, the day the provincial government pledged to provide the Expos with $8 million in annual debt-serving support, an amount that would allow the club to borrow $100 million for construction on capital markets.
Menard spoke March 24 about having $100 million in commitments from new investors - $25 million less than had been announced Feb. 18 - and said the consortium had a goal of $120 million in new investment. He said most of the money would be used to buy out Brochu, pay down operating debt and cover operating losses for the two or three seasons the Expos would have to keep playing in the Olympic Stadium.
Menard's group hopes to raise the remaining $75 million in stadium-construction costs through a revamped personal-seat-license program.
A seat-license drive that accompanied Brochu's original plan for a $250 million stadium raised $42 million in pledges, but $7 million fell through when the club tried to collect, leaving only $35 million raised.