Governor denounces Cooke's 'cheap shot'

December 09, 1993|By John W. Frece and Marina Sarris | John W. Frece and Marina Sarris,Staff Writers Staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

An angry and skeptical William Donald Schaefer yesterday called the Washington Redskins' proposed move to Laurel "a cheap shot" -- nothing more than a ploy to block Baltimore's efforts to attract another National Football League team.

Mr. Schaefer and his aides insisted that there is still hope, however slim, of realizing the governor's 9-year-old dream of returning an NFL team to Baltimore to replace the long-departed but warmly remembered Colts.

But Maryland legislators from the Washington area criticized the governor for thinking with his heart, rather than his head.

Redskins' owner Jack Kent Cooke wants to build the Redskins' new $160 million stadium with his own money while taxpayers would have to pay for a football stadium in Baltimore's Camden Yards. Had it been any other issue, the suburban Washington legislators said, Mr. Schaefer would have been the first to embrace it.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat, says Maryland officials just have to accept the fact, like it or not, that Mr. Cooke has blocked Baltimore from getting a team.

"Whether he's playing games with us or not, he's still causing a block, so maybe the thing to do is to call his bluff: to go with him, support him, work with him," he said.

"If I was the governor I'd start courting Jack Kent Cooke. Of course my frame of reference is different from the governor. My frame of reference is the Washington Redskins."

But Mr. Schaefer, far from courting Mr. Cooke, bluntly accused the Redskins' wealthy owner of sabotaging Baltimore. First, he said, Mr. Cooke dissuaded other NFL owners last month from picking Baltimore for the second of two expansion franchises by telling them that he was thinking of moving the Redskins to Maryland. Now, the governor said, Mr. Cooke is trying to scare off other NFL teams that might move here by saying he is taking the Redskins to Laurel.

"It's a cheap shot by this guy. It's a cheap move. He had nine years -- nine years! -- to move that team to Baltimore or to Laurel and never once did he ever, ever, ever evidence any interest in the Laurel area or Montgomery County or anyplace else," said a very annoyed Mr. Schaefer. "And now, when we're trying to get a team, all of a sudden he wants to be magnanimous."

Neither Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, nor Schaefer aides could offer proof that Baltimore is any closer to landing an NFL team. Mr. Belgrad said the state has had some "extremely preliminary discussions' with existing teams, but he conceded that "to call them negotiations would be a misrepresentation. There's nothing to get optimistic about or pessimistic about."

Yesterday, Mr. Belgrad and the governor met with Joe De Francis, co-owner of the Laurel Race Course, which owns the 55-acre tract in Anne Arundel County that Mr. Cooke says he wants to buy for his 78,600-seat stadium. Participants described the meeting as cordial, but said it changed nothing. Alan M. Rifkin, Mr. De Francis' lawyer, said the track owner believes that Mr. Cooke is serious. "Every indicator, and every point of reference, would lead one to believe that, and we take it as serious and real," he said.

Mr. Schaefer continued to threaten to withhold money or delay permits that might be needed in order for a stadium to be built adjacent to Laurel Race Course.

Access roads appear to be the big ticket item controlled by the state.

State Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said that it would cost "tens of millions of dollars" to expand the roads to accommodate traffic around the proposed stadium. That money doesn't exist in his budget, he said, and, even if it did, it would take the governor's approval to spend it on that.

"So it's highly unlikely," he said.

He estimated that the total "infrastructure costs" -- including roads, water and sewer improvements -- would cost county and state government from $50 million to $100 million. In his previous negotiations with Washington and Virginia, Mr. Cooke sought government funding of road and other improvements needed for the stadium.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's chief of staff, said there is "not even a question of a question" whether Mr. Schaefer could stop the project if he wants to. "It'd be like swatting flies here. It'd be that easy."

But Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat and influential member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes it would be wrong "to use the regulatory authority of the government to favor a franchise in Baltimore over a franchise in Laurel."

Mr. Schaefer said Laurel does not need the economic development boost that a football franchise would bring the way Baltimore does.

"There's a need in Baltimore. Why do you think we fought so hard for the franchise for Baltimore? The Laurel area does not need this type of stimulation right now. They don't need this, and Anne Arundel County doesn't need this; Baltimore City does," he said.

Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel's county executive, met yesterday with his zoning, public works and planning staffers.

The group determined that the Laurel tract's zoning would allow construction of a stadium, although a special exception would be needed and roads would need improving. The site has enough water and sewer capacity, said Louise Hayman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Neall.

Despite the governor's urging, Mr. Neall has taken no position on the project. "He's going to hear the Redskins' proposal out," Ms. Hayman said. She said Mr. Neall was called by a Redskins' representative yesterday, and they talked for 10 minutes.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Democrat from neighboring Montgomery County, predicted strong support for a Redskins' move once people realize that the money saved from building a new stadium in Baltimore could be used for "schools, or aquariums, or roads, or libraries, or other worthwhile projects."

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