Emotion Rules in the Great Football Debate

December 19, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Professional football has poisoned the political well in Maryland.

No matter the eventual outcome -- be it a Laurel stadium for Jack Kent Cooke and his politically incorrect Redskins, or even a Camden Yards stadium for the Baltimore Rams, Baltimore Patriots or the Baltimore Buccaneers -- the isolation of Baltimore has accelerated.

Suddenly, the bitterness over these competing interests threatens to overshadow the 1994 General Assembly session and become a major bone of contention in the gubernatorial election. Unless Governor Schaefer accommodates legislators anxious to do Mr. Cooke's bidding, his legislative program could be sabotaged. Proposals to assist impoverished Baltimore could killed, with angry city lawmakers returning the favor. It could get nasty.

All over a football stadium. . . or two.

It is not inconceivable that lawmakers could be confronted by an true embarrassment of riches -- two football franchises trying to locate just 15 miles apart in Maryland. But that would be bad news, not good. Mr. Cooke would surely attempt to stop any team moving to Baltimore, and he would be aided by the Prince George's County legislators serving as his chief cheerleaders. Cooke & Co. against Baltimore. Ill feelings would proliferate.

Most officials seem to be operating on the basis of emotion ratherthan cold, hard facts. Certainly no legislator has the foggiest notion if one, two or three football owners are serious about shifting their franchises to Baltimore. And certainly none of these lawmakers has anything but a wild guess on the true local impact if Mr. Cooke builds his sports stadium.

So it was wise for the governor and legislators last week to agree to a cooling-off period. It's time to gather facts, bring in consultants to study highway and infrastructure costs of the Cooke complex and assess the impact on Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties.

The time-out also sets the clock ticking on the Maryland Stadium Authority's efforts to bring football to Baltimore. By mid-February, either the authority will announce a deal or the focus will shift to Mr. Cooke's regional multi-sports complex in Laurel.

Helping Mr. Cooke won't be cheap. He says the cost of widening roads, etc., will set the state and counties back only $36 million. We have no way of knowing how exhaustive his studies were, whether he's intentionally low-balling or whether he's just guessing.

The last time suburban stadium sites were studied, the bottom-line costs were major. A December 1986 Peat Marwick study of a sports complex in Lansdowne near the Baltimore beltway estimated highway improvements alone at $120 million. And it would take fans nearly 2 hours just to drive from the football stadium parking lot to the beltway entrance after a game.

Another site at Nursery Road in Anne Arundel County would have required $130 million in highway improvements.

In each case, the major access roads -- even after adding more lanes -- would have been clogged beyond capacity. These studies anticipated a 65,000-seat football stadium, not Mr. Cooke's 78,000 coliseum. Nor did they foresee Abe Pollin adding a 20,000-seat arena near the existing racing strip at Laurel. Accommodating 110,000 sports fans on those Sundays would make I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway the ''highways from hell'' for East Coast drivers.

The football squabble has unleashed latent anti-Baltimore sentiment among state politicians. Parochialism has bubbled to the surface, sometimes exploited by politicians who might later regret their stances.

For instance, while Prince George's legislators were cheering Mr. Cooke's stadium drive, they failed to discuss the impact a related move would have on P.G. -- the building of a new Abe Pollin arena in Laurel and the closing of his USAir Arena in Landover. The tax loss to P.G. would be severe.

Gubernatorial candidates continue to jockey for position. Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg has now progressed from neutrality (''Although we have to proceed cautiously, the proposal should not be summarily dismissed. . . . It's time we think on a statewide basis and end parochialism.'') to demagogy (''Why should the public expend $200 million or more for a football facility . . . when we continue to have serious problems funding public priorities?'').

His goal seems to be to stir the emotions to the point that Governor Schaefer boils over and lashes out at Mr. Steinberg. That's what the lieutenant governor wants: a public showdown with the governor so Mr. Steinberg can be perceived as the anti-Schaefer candidate.

Yet the last thing we need in Annapolis is a state government deeply fractured along regional lines. That's a good way to ensure gridlock or spiteful ''get even'' politics.

Jack Kent Cooke -- who couldn't care less about the welfare of Maryland or of Baltimore or of Prince George's County -- may well get his stadium in Laurel. But he could leave in his wake a far less laudable development -- a bitter regional split in the State House.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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