Cooke woos officials over Laurel proposal

December 10, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke has mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to convince public officials in Maryland that he is serious about moving his football team to Laurel.

Over the past two days, the 81-year-old millionaire has personally called at least three state legislators and local county officials and invited the president of the Maryland Senate to his Northwest Washington home to court him over coffee and doughnuts.

The message each time appears to be the same: That he did not block the National Football League from awarding a franchise to Baltimore; that he is sincere in his desire to move the Redskins to Anne Arundel County; and that he is ready and willing to work with Maryland officials to get the project going.

He even told Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, that he wants to meet with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, although the governor's scheduling office said Mr. Cooke has not yet called seeking an appointment.

Mr. Schaefer has bitterly accused Mr. Cooke of blocking Baltimore's chances to land a team, has characterized the Laurel proposal as a ploy intended to get Washington, D.C., or Virginia officials to up their ante for the team and has vowed to do whatever he can in his final year in office to block a Redskins' move here.

Yesterday, however, indications were that the move to Laurel was not blocked so far. Alan M. Rifkin, a lawyer for Joe De Francis, co-owner of the property adjacent to Laurel Race Course that Mr. Cooke wants to buy, said the two met yesterday to discuss the deal.

"We are exchanging information," Mr. Rifkin said. "Our transaction becomes more and more specific and concrete moment by moment."

Describing the surprise call he received from Mr. Cooke, state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, who represents the district where the Redskins' stadium would be built, said:

"He said, 'I'm serious about this thing. I'm going to spend my own money. I'm not using this as a wedge, not using it as a ploy. I'm not using you guys. I'm not trying to embarrass you. I had nothing to do with the fact a team didn't come to Baltimore.' "

Asked if he believed what the owner said, Mr. Wagner replied: "I think if he is going to spend his money, you don't have any choice but to believe him. But no one is going to jump through any hoops until he makes a solid commitment."

Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, whose constituency includes the city of Laurel, said Mr. Cooke also called him Wednesday. "Basically, he wanted to make it known his desire to move to Laurel was a very real one, not a ploy. He was extremely sincere."

Committed to region

Senate President Miller described Mr. Cooke as "a super salesman" and said, "In my opinion, he is positively, absolutely, unequivocally committed to the Laurel region." He said the owner liked the location between Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, liked being halfway between the two cities, and liked the possibility of nailing down the television market from Baltimore to Northern Virginia.

Mr. Miller said he was shown plans of the stadium site that also indicated the possibility of an adjacent arena that could house the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Washington Bullets basketball team. Both now play at the USAir Arena in Largo.

A number of state legislators say they are impressed that Mr. Cooke is willing to spend $160 million of his own money to build a 78,600-seat stadium on a 55-acre tract he says he intends to buy. In the face of such an offer, some legislators say it would be politically difficult to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a similarly priced stadium in South Baltimore next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the construction costs are only part of the picture.

Road improvements

He said a preliminary review of road improvements alone for a Laurel stadium suggested costs could run as high as the $160 million the public would pay to build a football stadium at Camden Yards or possibly more.

For example, he said, a quickly compiled list of eight road improvements around the Laurel site could add from $120 million to $170 million to the overall cost. He emphasized that lengthy and detailed studies of four potential stadium sites were performed in 1986 before Camden Yards was selected, but said he knew of no such study of the Laurel site.

Moreover, he insisted, the economic spinoff of a stadium would be much greater in an urban setting such as Baltimore than in a suburban location such as Laurel. He said that has been proved in Kansas City and other locations that have built stadiums away from city centers.

The Camden Yards site, he said, has already been purchased, has access to various forms of mass transit, and almost all the road, rail and other infrastructure improvements required for the football stadium are in place.

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