Redskins enlist Laurel residents in their cause, but critics question sincerity

January 11, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer Staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

The Washington Redskins have gone on the offensive to include Laurel residents in their plans to build a 78,600-seat stadium in Anne Arundel County, in sharp contrast to their meager efforts in 1992 to win support for a similar proposal in Alexandria, Va.

"I try not to make the same mistake twice," Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke said. "We are just being more thorough in what we are doing, and I have more people involved."

The team failed to include citizen groups in its planning for the proposed Virginia stadium, conceded Walter E. Lynch, Mr. Cooke's project manager. "We tried to do it," he said. "We didn't do it soon enough."

The effort in Laurel is "a process of inclusion, not exclusion, where the community's concerns permeate every decision we make," said Alan M. Rifkin, Mr. Cooke's lobbyist on this project.

But critics of the team's proposed move to Anne Arundel County caution that the Redskins are trying to divide and conquer the skeptics.

"They are stroking people's egos," said Mary Lehman, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against the Stadium, Part II. "Making them feel important that they are getting invited to these meetings. I don't think they are sincere in asking for public input."

Since the stadium proposal became public last month, the Redskins have become active in Laurel:

* Mr. Cooke paid $2.1 million in cash to buy 25 acres adjacent to the proposed stadium site for parking and is negotiating with Laurel Race Course owner Joseph A. De Francis for the 55-acre stadium site.

* Redskins officials formed an outreach group headed by three co-chairmen from Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, including Ray Smallwood, an outspoken opponent of the stadium.

* The team opened an office in a building in downtown Laurel owned by the family of former Mayor Bob DiPietro, a member of the outreach group.

* Representatives in the Laurel office have begun a petition drive, collecting what they say is more than 1,300 signatures in three days from people who support the stadium.

* The team hired Mr. Rifkin, a veteran Annapolis lobbyist and former chief legislative aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer who helped secure legislation for the Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore.

* The team has offered to pay for a traffic study by a consultant hired by the opponents.

* Mr. Cooke said he plans to join the Laurel Chamber of Commerce.

Yesterday morning, the Laurel Board of Trade, one of the city's business organizations, endorsed the concept of a Redskins stadium in Laurel. Today, representatives of the Redskins are scheduled to meet with the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce, which is headquartered in Laurel.

A team official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Redskins directed their efforts to win support in Virginia at Gov. Douglas L. Wilder and believed his promises that the community would support the move. Now, the source said, team representatives realize that was the wrong approach.

"I think they are doing a good job," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, who represents the area of Anne Arundel that includes Laurel. "They are not trying to jam anything down our throat. I don't know how they handled it in Virginia, but if they handled it bad, they certainly learned from it."

J. Thomas Brannan, the assistant city manager for Alexandria, said, "All they did was come in here and say this is what it is and I don't care what you say. The governor said this is his land, and Mr. Cooke said this is his stadium, and we're getting married. Then people started to ask questions of what it would do."

An aide to Alexandria Mayor Patty Ticer complained that Mr. Cooke "never, ever dealt with us."

The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that city officials heard rumors of Mr. Cooke's announcement a few days in advance but were unable to confirm anything until the day before the news conference at the prospective site, a CSX Corp. rail yard, when they got a tip from workers hired to tidy it up for the event. They went there and found workers planting bushes.

Mr. Brannan said the city spent $250,000 in four months on its own impact studies, while a powerful Virginia lobbyist hired by Mr. Cooke successfully blocked a bill in the U.S. Senate that would have required the team to do an environmental impact study on Potomac Yards, one of the last undeveloped tracts of land in Alexandria.

He said groups in favor of the stadium were poorly organized, with most of the members from Fairfax and Arlington. "They had two or three press conferences, and then you never heard from them again."

The opponents were well organized, performed their own studies and produced a short video of people talking about their neighborhoods and sent it to the homes of politicians.

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