Pollin won't rule out a move downtown

December 24, 1993|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Abe Pollin, whose sports empire consists of the Washington Bullets and Capitals and the USAir Arena -- an aging, 20-year-old building in Landover that is home to both franchises -- could be faced with some intriguing choices.

Through USAir Arena president Jerry Sachs, Pollin let it be known three weeks ago that he might leave his building if presented with an offer of a new, publicly financed arena, presumably one featuring all the luxury amenities the current, outdated building lacks.

Talks about such a building aren't likely to progress for several months, until Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke has decided whether to build a football stadium as part of a sports complex in Laurel.

But already, several possible locations have been mentioned for a new arena, including sites in Washington, Laurel and one that could send shock waves through Baltimore sports fans.

Camden Yards?

"The Bullets would be a beautiful asset to Baltimore. I'd love to have the Bullets," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore. "But there are a lot of competing forces."

Among them: Does Pollin want an arena in Baltimore, the city his Bullets left two decades ago for the Washington suburbs?

Asked yesterday whether Pollin would have objections to moving his teams to Baltimore, Sachs said: "In theory, no. We certainly would entertain that possibility."

He said Pollin hadn't decided whether to move the teams or to proceed with a planned refurbishment of USAir Arena.

"We haven't gotten to the point where we know what we are going to do, what's in the best interest of our fans. We're in an information-gathering mode," Sachs said.

Still, in Baltimore, obstacles to construction of a state-of-the-art, 20,000-seat arena for pro basketball, pro hockey, rock concerts and religious revivals may, in fact, be next to impossible to overcome.

For starters, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has other plans for the downtown site next to Oriole Park. Foiled in his bid to land an expansion NFL franchise for Baltimore last month, the governor is now spearheading an effort to attract an existing NFL team to the city. Schaefer and Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad forged an agreement last week with nTC legislative leaders that gives Baltimore 60 days to pursue a moving team.

If the NFL dream dies, there's the formidable problem of freeing up state money to build an arena for Pollin's teams.

Stadium authority legislation passed in 1987 authorized selling revenue bonds to build a football stadium at Camden Yards, and may need to be amended for an arena. The legislation prohibits NBA games from being played there, a provision that Pollin, wary of competition, lobbied to have written into the bill.

Opposition from Prince George's and Montgomery counties also could be fierce, as legislators from those suburban Washington areas would be stuck with the unappealing prospect of not only losing NBA and NHL teams in their back yards, but also paying for a new arena in Baltimore at a cost of up to $100 million.

Belgrad yesterday downplayed talk of a Pollin move. He said the stadium authority hasn't discussed it and would not begin talks about an arena without instructions from Schaefer, who hasn't mentioned the subject to him, Belgrad said.

Schaefer hinted at a news conference last week that he was giving "very important consideration" to the possibility of building an arena as part of a Camden Yards sports complex, but declined to elaborate.

In the past, the stadium authority has considered a plan for a domed stadium that also could be adapted for basketball and hockey events.

"If Mr. Pollin has determined that the current facility is inadequate and wants to discuss locating in the Baltimore area, we'd certainly be open," Belgrad said. "But this is very much speculation. We're focusing on our legislative purpose, which is to get NFL football."

Enthusiasm for a publicly financed downtown arena is mixed among Baltimore-area legislators.

Pica said he remains committed to football first.

"It's a very fluid process which changes every day. But there's been one constant with Baltimore: We want a football franchise. If people allow us to play out that hand, and we fail, then is the time to look at other options," said Pica, a staunch supporter of Schaefer's NFL game plan.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the powerful house appropriations committee, questioned spending public money on a Camden Yards arena.

"The reality is that at USAir Arena, the Bullets and the hockey team are not drawing spectacular crowds. I just can't fathom why a move would be necessary at this time, and why the state should support such a move," he said.

Several legislators said that amending the stadium authority legislation would be difficult, dividing many along Washington and Baltimore lines and forcing deals to be struck.

"It's politically conceivable. It makes sense on the merits," said one Baltimore city delegate, who suggested Baltimore legislators might gather voters for a Camden Yards arena by dropping their objections to Cooke's proposed stadium in Laurel, a prized project in counties closer to Washington.

But Rawlings sounded wary of such a deal, saying an arena should be low on the wish list of Baltimore legislators. "I would be more interested in getting the state to commit to a Maryland performing arts center than moving basketball and hockey to the city," he said.

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