Camden arena talk heats up

January 25, 1994|By Jon Morgan and Sandy Banisky | Jon Morgan and Sandy Banisky,Staff Writers Staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

Some supporters of Baltimore's quest for an NFL team, concerned as time grows short to lure a team here, are preparing to back an alternative plan to bring the Washington Bullets and Washington Capitals to a new arena at Camden Yards.

"If Baltimore does not get an NFL franchise, then I would push for funding for a new arena," said state Sen. John Pica, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's senate delegation.

"It's an idea that is spreading -- it's something that is very much discussed in Annapolis. It hasn't jelled yet, but it's an intriguing idea for many people," Pica said.

Legislative leaders have held preliminary discussions about converting the funding set aside for an NFL stadium at Camden Yards to a new arena there to house the Bullets and Capitals. Both teams are owned by Abe Pollin and play at the 20-year-old USAir Arena in Landover.

Though USAir Arena is in Prince George's County, one senator from the county, Thomas P. O'Reilly, chairman of the Finance Committee, supports funding a Baltimore arena.

"I don't know whether it'll pass, but I do know that Camden Yards is an ideal location for an arena," O'Reilly said.

But legislators warned that the talk is premature. In an election year, they say, suburban Washington legislators might be reluctant to support the move of two sports franchises to Baltimore. Also, many legislators have other potential uses for the stadium money set aside.

"The question is: Where does the state best use its bond resources? On schools, or on prisons, or a new international wing at BWI?" said state Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Democrat from Montgomery County. She added that she does not yet know what the right answer is.

"When it comes down to schools or prison construction or international trade at the airport, it becomes a question of, 'What can we afford?' " said Boergers, who is a candidate for governor.

Before any decisions are made, other legislators say, the state should devise a long-range plan for the future of Maryland sports.

"It would be highly inaccurate to suggest that the legislature is about to embark on a plan to build a major new sports facility anywhere," said Prince George's Del. Timothy F. Maloney.

"If the NFL franchise is not forthcoming on Feb. 14, the General Assembly will have a very important economic development strategy decision to make," Maloney said. "It's a decision that can't be made overnight and has to require very thorough, very careful consideration of economic development priorities."

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said: "I am aware of that discussion, and I am pleased that the legislators are thinking about ways the entire state can benefit from those bond proceeds if a new stadium for an NFL team is not built at Camden Yards."

And Gov. William Donald Schaefer, through his press secretary, said only that he is committed to wait until the 60-day deadline for an NFL commitment has passed: "Once that's done, he will have to evaluate the total sports picture in Maryland."

At a news conference last week, Schaefer was asked about using stadium authority bonds for an arena at Camden Yards. "You're a little bit ahead of me. I don't think I can answer the question now," he said.

If the city has not obtained a commitment by Feb. 14 from a team interested in moving to Camden Yards, the governor says he will re-examine his opposition to the Redskins moving to Laurel and the Canadian Football League moving into Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.

With the sale of the New England Patriots last week to a Boston-based investor, one of Baltimore's best hopes of luring an existing team by Feb. 14 passed away. Of the other teams said to be considering a move, none seems to be in a position to make a decision quickly, although the Los Angeles Rams have held preliminary talks with local officials.

Baltimore-area lawmakers argue that allowing the Redskins to move to Laurel would provide few benefits for Baltimore fans, but could eliminate the city's chances of getting its own team.

"There has to be something of comparable value and economic benefit to the city if you are going to take away a stadium," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.

O'Reilly of Prince George's suggested the city could benefit by an even larger plan, saying perhaps an arena could be connected with the baseball stadium, the Inner Harbor, Little Italy, Fells Point and maybe even the city's theater district by some sort of "people mover" such as a monorail.

"We as a state legislature must not forget that Baltimore is the heart of the state and needs support," he said. "It seems to me that if we as a state try to figure out the best way to maximize the revenue stream into the state and into the city, the best way is to provide a facility -- namely the arena -- in a place that will generate the most revenue activity."

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