Clash erupts anew on NFL stadiums

December 16, 1993|By John W. Frece and Sandy Banisky | John W. Frece and Sandy Banisky,Staff Writers

Barely a day after state legislators and the Schaefer administration declared a truce over competing plans to build football stadiums in Laurel and Baltimore, the two sides were at it again yesterday.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Herbert J. Belgrad delivered the administration message to an audience of business leaders: Maryland can support two National Football League teams -- one in Baltimore, and one in Laurel, if the Washington Redskins should decide to move there.

He also warned once again against putting too much trust in Redskins' owner Jack Kent Cooke's repeated statements that he is sincere about moving his team to Laurel. Mr. Belgrad told the BWI Business Partnership, a group of airport-based business executives, that he knows "second-hand" that Mr. Cooke is close to a deal with at least one landowner in Northern Virginia.

A Redskins' official vehemently denied that those talks are still alive.

Mr. Cooke, in what appears to be part of a concerted effort to prove how serious he is about moving his team to a 55-acre tract now owned by Laurel Race Course, began Monday calling Laurel businesses, introducing himself and telling local store owners he would like to get to know them.

Yesterday, Redskins' officials briefed the Greater Laurel Board of Trade, the latest in a series of local government and community meetings.

Mr. Cooke has requested a meeting with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, but despite the urging of legislative leaders for such a meeting, Mr. Schaefer's aides said the two have not yet talked, and no meeting has been scheduled.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who strongly supports the Redskins' move to Laurel, was among legislators who praised the administration's spirit of cooperation following a private meeting Tuesday.

But yesterday, he was openly critical of Mr. Belgrad's stubborn insistence that Baltimore may still land a team.

He complained that the Stadium Authority chairman was putting up "roadblock after roadblock after roadblock," even after it became apparent Baltimore's chances to land a team were diminished.

He noted that National Football League owners rejected Baltimore's plea for an expansion franchise by a lopsided vote when the Redskins were negotiating for a new stadium in Washington, and said, "There's no reason to think that if a vote came up again, with the Redskins 25 miles up the road closer to Baltimore," that the vote would change.

Any other NFL team that tried to move so close to the Redskins' franchise surely would end up in court with Mr. Cooke, he said.

"No team is going to come here and buy into litigation with a billionaire," he said, referring to Mr. Cooke, who has an estimated worth of $900 million.

"If there is a viable franchise somewhere else and they are willing to sign an agreement [to play in Baltimore], then -- as William Donald Schaefer says -- 'Do it now!' " he said.

Mr. Belgrad says that he doesn't believe a Redskins move to Maryland would end Baltimore's hopes for football.

"Our position is the Redskins and the Colts coexisted for years," he told the business executives at yesterday's breakfast. "They're two separate and distinct markets," and there is no reason why two teams couldn't locate in Maryland.

"Absolutely," he said, "the facts, the history, the traditions support that conclusion. . . . When you have a waiting list of 48,000 [for Redskins tickets], you absolutely have a distinct market."

He said that an independent study of the economic development value of a stadium in Laurel, as well as an assessment of the state's costs for improvements there, will have to guide legislators on whether to support Mr. Cooke's plan to move there.

Mr. Belgrad said that studies around the country have shown cities benefit more than rural areas from the presence of major-league sports. "A stadium in a suburban area does not generate business, restaurants, hotels. It just does not have a significant impact."

The stadium authority, he said, is having "cautious discussions" with one or two unhappy team owners who are exploring moves to Baltimore. But he said those talks now are complicated by Mr. Cooke's interest in Laurel.

At least one member of the audience of about 80 wasn't soothed by Mr. Belgrad's reassurances about Baltimore's hopes.

When Mr. Belgrad opened the floor to questions, Carroll Dixon, a vice president for marketing for Abacus Corp., leaped to his feet. "Why don't you stop talking, and get us a team?" Mr. Dixon shouted. "We're letting this guy Cooke tell us what to do."

Mr. Dixon, a former Colts fan who lives in Anne Arundel County, said his home isn't far from Laurel, but he wants a team back in Baltimore. "We're losing the image here," he said. "Get us the Baltimore somethings."

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