City arena could be built if NFL bid fails

January 28, 1994|By John W. Frece and Jon Morgan | John W. Frece and Jon Morgan,Staff Writers Staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

General Assembly leaders say that if Baltimore fails to win a National Football League team, the city still may get the bulk of stadium construction money to use for some other tourist-attracting facility, such as a new sports arena.

"We're laying the groundwork for life after the NFL," said one lawmaker involved in behind-the-scenes discussions.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders agreed in December to give the Maryland Stadium Authority until Feb. 14 to demonstrate serious interest on the part of some NFL team in moving to Baltimore.

Unless there is a surprise in the offing, most lawmakers believe hopes are dwindling to keep the $160 million project alive.

If it dies, then comes the question: what to do with the money?

Already, lawmakers from across the state are queuing up with the hope of claiming a piece of the pie: renovations for the convention center in Ocean City; a conference center in Bethesda; a Redskins' training facility at Frostburg State; even a minor league baseball project in the Salisbury area.

City senators and delegates, with the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, are pushing hard for a new sports arena adjacent to Oriole Park. But in a surprising twist yesterday intended to gain the support of the powerful president of the Senate, they said they will not try to lure the Capitals' hockey team or the Bullets' basketball team from their current venue at the USAir Arena in Largo.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, says he objects to using the stadium funds to build an arena in Baltimore if that would cause the Capitals and Bullets to move there from his home county. He also said he does not believe team owners should benefit from such largess.

Yesterday, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said they believe a new arena in Baltimore can be financially viable even without the Bullets and the Capitals.

The two men said such an arena not only could replace the Baltimore Arena, which has a maximum fan capacity of about 11,000 for basketball games and no sky boxes or other luxury seating, but could be used for a variety of events: circuses, Ice Capades, some Bullets' or University of Maryland basketball games, concerts, or perhaps the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Mr. Rawlings said city officials do not want to be accused of stealing such an important resource as professional sports teams from another jurisdiction, especially from Prince George's, which has been a regular ally of the city's. If necessary, he said, he is willing to prove the city's good faith by putting into state law a prohibition against the two teams moving to a new city arena.

Mr. Schmoke said through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman: "I have never had a conversation with [owner Abe] Pollin about moving the Capitals or Bullets, and it was never our intention to move them to Baltimore. I am convinced that a sports arena would be successfully operated in the city without the Capitals or Bullets moving."

Other parties to the talks, however, said the governor has not yet given up his hope of landing an NFL team. Even if a stadium is not built, they say, neither the governor nor legislative leaders have concluded a new arena is the best alternative use for the money.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, called such talk premature, but warned that it may be shortsighted for the city to discourage the Capitals and Bullets from moving, only to watch them leave Maryland completely.

Currently the Bullets play four of their 41 home games a season at the Baltimore Arena, built in 1962 and originally called the Baltimore Civic Center. The rest are played at the USAir Arena, which opened in 1973 and seats 18,000. Some modern facilities hold up to 25,000.

Jerry Sachs, president of the USAir Arena and vice chairman of the Bullets, said he was not aware of the proposal for a new Baltimore arena that would exclude the Bullets and Capitals.

"It's doubtful that an arena would have any economic viability without one or both major league teams. That's the way it was for USAir Arena," he said.

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