Cooke, state to talk

February 12, 1994|By John W. Frece and Jon Morgan | John W. Frece and Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writers

The Schaefer administration and General Assembly leaders will meet today with Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to try to agree on a two-pronged approach to bringing professional football back to Maryland.

Mr. Cooke will be looking for assurances from the governor and top lawmakers that the state will do nothing to block his plans to build a $160 million stadium for the Redskins in Laurel with his own money.

In exchange, Gov. William Donald Schaefer will be looking for a commitment from the billionaire owner not to interfere with his continuing efforts to bring another National Football League franchise to Baltimore.

With the General Assembly session nearing its halfway mark and the need to make budget decisions fast approaching, both parties are expected to place their cards on the table.

"I have reason to believe we are going to reach an accord," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany. "People who are talking to me and to [Mr. Cooke] are suggesting this thing can be worked out."

Mr. Cooke has been speaking privately to legislators but declined to comment publicly until after the meeting. He, Mr. Schaefer, the presiding officers of the House and Senate, and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall were expected to discuss the football franchise issue over lunch today at the Governor's Mansion.

In the past, Mr. Cooke has been frank in his assessment that the Baltimore-Washington region can support only one team. In an interview with The Sun last month, he said that only New York, which is much larger, can support two teams.

Asked what would become of his Laurel plans if Baltimore attracted an NFL team, the 81-year-old owner said, "I'd have to think about that and make a decision."

Sources familiar with his plans say he is also concerned that a team interested in moving just 15 miles up the road in Baltimore may demand as a precondition that the state thwart the Redskins' move, possibly by denying permits or holding up road improvements. Redskins' officials privately suggest that Mr. Schaefer, who has spent the past decade in pursuit of a team to replace the Colts, would pick Baltimore over the Redskins if faced with that choice.

The governor, however, has privately suggested to lawmakers that he will take steps to allay those fears in return for Mr. Cooke's support.

Experts in sports economics question whether Mr. Cooke's plan to privately finance a stadium can be accomplished with another team in Baltimore, with both teams competing for skybox and luxury seat customers.

Mr. Cooke has proposed a record 330 skyboxes and 15,000 club seats for his 78,600-seat stadium -- proceeds from which are necessary to cover the project's cost.

By comparison, Baltimore's proposed taxpayer-financed stadium calls for 108 skyboxes and 7,500 club seats.

Mr. Cooke has repeatedly said he will not build a stadium in Washington, where he grew frustrated after years of failed negotiations. He has refused, however, to rule out moving to Virginia, where he once tried to move his team.

Mr. Taylor yesterday tried to calm members of the House of Delegates, who have been questioning the wisdom of spending taxpayers' money on a Baltimore stadium that may be used fewer than a dozen times a year and that would benefit a wealthy team owner. Many believe taxpayers would be better served by spending the money on schools, prisons or other pressing state needs.

Those lawmakers, he said, are forgetting that the original aim of building a stadium in downtown Baltimore was to attract tourists and generate economic activity.

"It ultimately fuels the engine that funds the education, the health, and the welfare and all the rest," he said.

Yesterday, Mr. Taylor sent a letter to all 141 members of the House, updating them on the sports franchise issue and reminding them of how much money the state has spent over the last three years on school construction. In an interview, he said he would not be surprised to see the General Assembly this year raise Mr. Schaefer's school construction budget from $81 million to as much as $105 million.

"I would ask every member of the House to reserve judgment and avoid premature decision-making on these important issues," Mr. Taylor said in a letter later applauded by Mr. Schaefer.

In an effort to head off regional disputes over stadiums vs. schools, the speaker suggested the two goals were not mutually exclusive. "We will not pit one program against another or take actions . . . that will promote regional divisiveness," he wrote.

Mr. Taylor also said he was convinced that Governor Schaefer's chance of bringing another NFL team to Baltimore is realistic, having spoken with "potential buyers and potential sellers" of some or all of the three NFL franchises with whom Mr. Schaefer has been dealing. The teams include the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I don't think it is pie-in-the-sky at all," the speaker said. "I think there are multiple efforts being made that are responsible and do-able."

Referring to his own independent conversations, he said, "I'm not operating just on what the governor said to me."

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