If he wants to build it, Cooke ought to stick to his own game plan

January 10, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

A Beguiling Man Named Cooke

Exudes Charm To Fill A Book.

He Might Seem A Bit Kookie

But This Is One Sharp Cookie.

-- With apologies to Homer (or Jethro)

The pacification process that Jack Kent Cooke is using on Governor William Donald Schaefer is as transparent as window glass. It fully tests the gullibility factor.

Cooke, a born salesman, knocked on doors during the depression-racked 1930s to sell encyclopedias on his way to becoming a billionaire. Then he elevated himself to another job . . . selling soap. Now he's doing it again, peddling an enormous supply of soft-soap to the governor.

Cooke wants to build a stadium for the Washington Redskins in Laurel, and it would help the owner of the property, Joe De Francis, to make the deal and use some of the money to pay off the Manfuso brothers, Tommy and Bob, in his quest to gain full ownership of the Laurel and Pimlico racetracks.

The governor is being told he has to like the proposal because of the tax money it would offer Maryland. Cooke doesn't need the governor's approval or that of the editorial writers in Baltimore and Washington. It's a private undertaking. He's free to build where he wants in a free country, and Maryland, we're told, is known historically as the Free State, except when it comes to paying for the right to live here.

Cooke can break ground tomorrow. He says he'll spend $160 million of his own money, not that of the tax-paying public, to put up a stadium for the Washington Redskins. The governor's staff insists Cooke's estimate of $36 million to cover the infrastructure is wrong, that it will be more like $100 million, assuming the state has to bear the cost.

However, a man in the development business, a giant in his field, says Cooke is closer to being right than what Schaefer's people, including the Maryland Stadium Authority, are saying. Herb Belgrad, chairman of the stadium authority, offered an early opinion it may be $100 million.

Of course, Schaefer and Belgrad, for some reason, are trying to "save face" in this football argument since Baltimore lost out in its previous bid to get the St. Louis Cardinals, now in Phoenix, to relocate on the shores of the Chesapeake. They were later ignored in the losing and painful expansion process with the National Football League.

Let the truth be known: They are not even remotely being faulted for what happened.

If the lobbyists, politicians and attorneys involved in the maneuvering are giving Cooke material on what to tell the governor, they ought to try writing comedy scripts. Cooke, it has been reported, has gone so far as to tell the governor he'll name the stadium after him.

What a laugh. The governor doesn't need a stadium named in his honor. During the 16 years this reporter campaigned for a new sports facility in Camden Yards, the only thing Schaefer, first as mayor and then governor, kept saying was, "Tell Steadman to build it with his money. We don't need one."

What an irony it would be if Schaefer is now so enamored with the idea he instructs Cooke to go ahead and put up William Donald Schaefer Stadium. There's more reason to call it Jack Kent Cooke Stadium since he's going to foot the bill.

Schaefer invited Cooke to come to Camden Yards and build there. But Cooke told him it would take up too much of the existing parking area and deprive fans from holding tailgate parties. In Laurel he would have space for 23,000 cars, as opposed to 3,000 or so at Camden.

But this is an incredulous first . . . a stadium costing upward of $160 million being negated by lack of accommodations for tailgating.

As another plus for the governor, Cooke supposedly would establish the Redskins' training camp in Western Maryland. This was to get the favorable attention of Casper Taylor, the new speaker of the House of Delegates, who is from Cumberland.

Now if Cooke means Western Maryland College, only 28 miles from Baltimore, that's a different topic entirely. Moving a team from Cumberland to either Pittsburgh or Dulles Airport for exhibition game travel would be too time-consuming.

The entire scenario makes for good theater. Cooke has been gracious to the governor in soliciting his support. It's a personal courtesy. Those involved with briefing Cooke on what he should tell the governor have made some bad calls, as witness the adolescent suggestion to call the stadium after Schaefer and putting the training camp in Western Maryland.

Cooke, in reality, doesn't need anyone's permission. He can just go build it.

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