Menard Says Support Positive, not Official

By Paul Cherry

Expos chairman Jacques Menard doused speculation Major League Baseball would offer an official thumbs-up to a proposed new ownership of the Expos this week.

"I'm not expecting to hear anything from Major League Baseball today," Menard said yesterday morning as some media speculated - based on optimistic comments he made during a Monday night radio interview - that approval was a done deal. Yesterday, Menard sounded more cautionary. "No one is coming down from a mountain with a report. I would call their support generally positive. But I'm not expecting them to come out today or this week with any blessing of the business plan."

Most people interviewed yesterday said they have heard an official decision would be made sometime near the end of August or in early September. MLB spokesman Richard Levin would only say, "there is nothing imminent to report at this time."

Menard did confirm a recent meeting with MLB commissioner Bud Selig produced the most positive signals yet for approval of the proposed ownership group and business plan, which would include ushering in New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria as the new managing partner, replacing current president Claude Brochu.

"I visited with (Selig) two weeks ago and I went over a number of financial matters with him including the business plan and there seemed to be some reasonable concurrence on some of the parameters," Menard said. "There are some other things that (MLB) is looking at, particularly the stadium, which they are involved in examining now."

Meanwhile, a group of Washington-area businessmen interested in purchasing the team acknowledged it has little chance of moving the Expos southward, at least in the immediate future. In a Washington Post article published yesterday, a backer of the Washington Baseball Club Limited Liability Co. acknowledged its chances now are slim. America Online co-founder Jim Kimsey called his group's bid for the Expos, "a long shot." The six-member group is estimated be be worth $3 billion and has White House connections. The lead investor, Frederic Malek, chairman of a Washington investment firm, was once part owner of the Texas Rangers with U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush. Major League Baseball hasn't moved a franchise in 28 years and the Baltimore Orioles ownership insists 25 per cent of its fans come from the Washington area. The Malek-led group is currently doing its own analysis and hopes to prove a team in Washington would produce more baseball fans.

Quoted in the same article, Expos marketing consultant Roger Samson warned the group not to hold its breath. "We've got the franchise. And we're keeping it, thank you very much."

Samson chuckled about the comments yesterday, saying he was only protecting his own turf and not basing them on any assurances from Major League Baseball.

Samson also said that even if Selig were satisfied with all elements of the plan, a change of ownership has to be voted on by major league owners.

"We're not expecting an announcement because we don't believe this is how it would happen," he said.

"In order to give final approval they have to be satisfied that the business plan is in place. This is why we've been going back and forth with the league for weeks. In terms of showing them what we've got it's a constant dialogue."

Other positive signs are that the Expos are close to signing contracts with both Canada Lands Co., a crown corporation, for a land deal and a contract with the Quebec government for $7 million or $8 million in annual debt-servicing costs for any new stadium.

"The next step left in the relationships with both governments is to sign the agreement," said Jean Simard, a spokesman for the ownership bid. "Things are falling into place very quickly." Interviewed on Monday, Canada Lands Co, vice-president Gordon McIvor said both parties are, "for the first time singing from the same hymn sheet," and that an agreement could be completed soon. The ownership group is now more interested in purchasing the land, as opposed to a 99-year lease. The land is reportedly worth around $18 million.

And no one in the Expos organization is denying reports that Montreal-based Axor Group Inc. won the tentative contract to build the new downtown stadium which would be located south of the Molson Centre.

Axor Group Inc., a company founded in 1972 in Sept-Iles, completed $380 million in contracts in 1998. Its only experience in large sports stadiums was to design and construct the Jarry Park Tennis Stadium. It is also currently constructing the nearly completed American embassy in Ottawa. What remains to be seen is whether Major League Baseball is convinced a downtown stadium can be built to big league standards for $200 million. The company asked to make that assessment, Kansas City-based HOK Inc., would not comment on when it's expected to file its findings to Major League Baseball.

Some have speculated that a new major league stadium can't be built for $200 million. HOK Inc. itself has built stadiums for hundreds of millions more. Samson said that it is impossible to compare building a stadium in the U.S.with its booming economy to building one in Montreal.

"We don't want people to think that we're building a scaled down or diminished version of a stadium," he said. "Two factors keep our costs down. The first is the state of the construction industry here. If you look around there are no cranes around. That has a substantial impact on price."

The other factor, Samson said, was that a company like Axor, which uses a design/build concept for its projects, keeps the price down because it monitors costs throughout the project

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