Schmoke starts a city timer on NFL's game plan Mayor eager to settle Memorial Stadium's fate

May 19, 1992|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Maryland Stadium Authority, who've been close partners in the state's bid to get a National Football League expansion team, could be parting ways on one important issue: when to unleash a wrecking ball on Memorial Stadium.

Stadium Authority officials are counting on the city-owned ballpark to stick around at least until 1995, so that a new football team could play home games there while construction of a new downtown football stadium is under way.

But under at least one scenario, Mr. Schmoke isn't willing to wait that long. Last week, the mayor said he'll proceed with redevelopment of the stadium property at the end of the year if the NFL hasn't firmed up its expansion timetable by then.

Mr. Schmoke said he owed that to Memorial Stadium's neighbors, who've urged him to act quickly to resolve the ballpark's future.

"I have an obligation to the neighbors around Memorial Stadium to move ahead with redevelopment plans if the NFL doesn't make a decision this calendar year," he said. "If they come up with another delay or deferral, that is not going to affect our plans."

The mayor said that he considered differences between the city and the Stadium Authority "fairly technical" and that they might have no effect on the NFL bid. Even if redevelopment goes forward soon, he said, it might be years before a specific project was approved and the stadium came down.

But Mr. Schmoke acknowledged another, more complicated possibility. "If we get a proposal [to develop the stadium property] that everybody loves in '93 -- the neighbors, the city, that'll have a good financial impact -- and the NFL says it's going to wait until 1994, that's when we might have a problem," he

said.

In presentations to the league, Stadium Authority officials have held out Memorial Stadium as the place a Baltimore expansion team would play for a year or two. The NFL hasn't established a firm timetable for expansion. But league owners, who are meeting in Pasadena, Calif., have said they might whittle the list of contending cities from seven to five this week. The two expansion winners, which might be selected in October, possibly could begin play in the 1994 or 1995 season.

On the other hand, expansion might be years away. Last month, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threw doubt on the process when he suggested that the league might not expand until it has resolved a long-standing labor dispute with NFL players.

Herbert J. Belgrad, the Stadium Authority chairman, said Mr. Schmoke's remarks about Memorial Stadium's future "do not pose any threat to our expansion efforts."

Mr. Belgrad predicted that the city would have to contend with manyobstacles if redevelopment comes soon, including a sluggish economy that has slowed the pace of development.

"I have no reason to believe the stadium won't be available through the 1995 season," he said.

Another obstacle to razing the stadium, which has been vacant since the Orioles moved to Camden Yards after last season, might be the high cost. Mr. Belgrad said the Stadium Authority has offered to help the city underwrite the massive demolition job, which some officials say could cost $5 million or more. But the offer is good only if the building is left standing until the authority is ready for it to come down.

Mr. Schmoke's remarks concerned some local business leaders who have been in the forefront of the state's expansion bid.

"The mayor has a lot of interests to balance. But we've all got to be careful that nothing interferes with the process of getting an NFL team," said Bob Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Raymond "Chip" Mason, Legg Mason's chief executive officer and one of the business leaders who has worked most closely with the Stadium Authority, said he had not spoken to the mayor about Memorial Stadium. But Mr. Mason said: "With all that's gone on, I find it hard to believe we wouldn't wait, unless the [expansion] time frame is ridiculous."

For the stadium neighborhoods, the mayor's stance is good news, said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat, whose constituents live near the old stadium.

"I think the neighborhood generally will be very supportive of this decision by the mayor," Mr. Cunningham said. "It's a date. You know when you can begin the development process. You don't have the uncertainty for one or two years of whether the NFL is going to be here or not."

But Mr. Cunningham said that neighbors also were prepared to live with the stadium for a while, as long as a football team is playing inside it.

"A lot of plans would work for the neighborhood," he said. "But what doesn't work is no decision on an NFL team and the stadium not being maintained properly."

L Without Memorial Stadium, a Baltimore NFL team would be left

scrambling for a place to play home games. Possible home fields would include Byrd Stadium in College Park, the home of the University of Maryland's football team, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The new stadium lease reserves a right for the Stadium Authority to use the stadium for football, but Mr. Belgrad, the authority chairman, said that would be a last resort, because it would require additional construction work.

For his part, Mr. Schmoke said he didn't believe Baltimore's chances would be seriously impaired if Memorial Stadium weren't available, calling the expansion sweepstakes "a roll of the dice."

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