With stadium behind in repairs, Speros is short of help

April 12, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

As Jim Speros squinted across sunlit Memorial Stadium one day last week, he got a glimpse of what he perceived to be the future of pro football in Baltimore.

Where there were flaking, faded chairs, he saw rows of freshly painted seats. Where there was once an outfield fence, he saw a 20-yard, Canadian Football League end zone. Where there were remnants of a baseball era -- backstop, infield skin, foul poles -- he saw a football revival.

What the owner of the Baltimore CFL Colts saw was an unfinished work.

"This will be beautiful when we get it finished," Speros said. "Like an antique. We could bowl this in for the Grey Cup and put 70,000 in this place."

When it comes to that bromide about perspective, Speros' glass is always three-quarters full to overflowing.

Memorial Stadium, 40 years old, is more ruin than antique in its current state. It has not aged well in the three-year absence of the Orioles, the Bowie Baysox's brief stay last summer notwithstanding. One needs only to walk through the dank, moldy structure to see the effects of time and neglect:

* Electrical wires dangle in a corridor under the upper deck.

* Rotting floor boards in a television booth render it dangerous. When Jobie Waldt, the Colts' facilities manager, led a tour of the stadium, his right leg went through wet, rotted wood up to his knee.

* Shards of broken glass cover the floor and a desk in a booth adjacent to the audio room. Half of the shattered window remains in its frame.

* Carpet in several booths on the mezzanine level is tattered, discolored and, in places, soggy from exposure.

* Pricey club seats on the mezzanine level are flaked and peeling, in need of sanding and a coat of paint.

* Upper deck seats are so faded that chair colors are barely discernible from the lower deck.

In 78 days, the mess has to be cleaned up. On June 29, the Colts make their home debut in an exhibition game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. That's how much time the team has to paint 54,000 seats, bathrooms, locker rooms and corridors, fix the sound system, replace the scoreboard, check plumbing, upgrade the press box and patch and restripe the parking lot.

"My goal is to have it done by the 29th of June," Speros said. "If not, hopefully, we'll have a majority of the work done by the 29th. Painting will be the biggest time-consuming job."

In what amounts to a two-minute drill to give the stadium a face-lift, Speros may run out of renovation money before he runs out of time. He has an agreement with the city for a $500,000 loan and the promise of "like services," or labor, from the Department of Public Works. He says he has spent more than $200,000 of his money to launch the project, including refurbishing the Orioles' old offices.

But all of that doesn't cover projections of at least $2 million to get the job done. Absent is a commitment from Gov. William Donald Schaefer to assist in the project. And despite Speros' attempts to work behind the scenes to get state money, there has been no softening of the governor's position.

"As of right now, there is no provision for state money for improvements at Memorial Stadium," said Page W. Boinest, Schaefer's press secretary. "The governor has been waiting to see what kind of progress is made in attracting an NFL franchise for the city."

Without a commitment for $1 million more for renovations, Speros will be hard-pressed to pull off his other stated goal: bring the 1996 Grey Cup to Memorial Stadium. He must take his bid for the game to the CFL owners in an April 28 meeting in Las Vegas. A decision on the 1996 Grey Cup game won't be made until July.

City Councilman Bill Cunningham, who has campaigned on various stadium issues, is among those trying to support Speros. He said he recently sent a letter to Schaefer asking for help.

"[Schaefer] and the stadium authority made a commitment to seek funding for demolition and site preparation from the legislature," Cunningham said. "I asked him to remember his commitment to the neighborhood and participate in some form in stadium renovation and in whatever is going to happen to Eastern High School," which is across the street from the stadium.

Cunningham said he wasn't certain what the holdup might be, but suggested it might have to do with the relationship between Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"I think the governor is upset because the city moved forward with the Canadian Football League while he and others were trying to attract an NFL team," he said. "And for that reason, I don't think he's coming forth with the funding."

Describing the CFL team as a "regional attraction that benefits the state," Cunningham said, "As governor of the state, it makes a lot of sense [to help renovate the stadium]. But that's no guarantee he'll do it."

Schmoke said recently at a Colts function: "I think the state is waiting to see what kind of commitment we'd make to the stadium. I think they're still considering. . . . We're going to make sure the place gets in shape for the start of the season."

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