State plays catch-up in trying to keep teams

June 10, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer convened a summit of government leaders in March to craft a strategy to keep the Washington Bullets and Capitals in Maryland, it seemed another example of the do-it-now chief executive taking action.

But business leaders in Washington were already far ahead of their Maryland counterparts, working quietly behind the scenes -- with the barest of government involvement -- assembling an offer.

Those negotiations, which began in December, are close to producing a letter of understanding that could lead to the basketball and hockey teams moving from the 20-year-old USAir Arena in Landover to a new, publicly financed $150-million facility in downtown Washington.

Washington, Maryland and team officials all say the deal is not done and that a push could keep the teams in Maryland. But the Washington negotiations have put Maryland in a catch-up role -- unusual for an administration that prides itself on nimble response to economic development opportunities.

"We just saw an opportunity and moved on it," Kwasi Holman, executive vice president of the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce and one of the prime movers in the deal, said.

His chamber and another business group, the Federal City Council, rallied in December when word began leaking out that Abe Pollin, owner of both teams and their arena, was interested in a new facility. By January, the two business groups already were meeting with team officials and lining up consultants and volunteers to study sites and work up cost estimates.

District government officials were briefed, but kept in the background. The last government-led sports initiative, to build a new stadium in Washington for the Redskins, broke down in acrimony.

Any deal worked out with Mr. Pollin would have to be approved by the Washington City Council, which goes into summer recess July 15. Some elements, such as a proposed increase in the liquor tax to help pay for the arena, already are drawing controversy, but the foundation has been laid for the debate.

"We began in earnest in January, and we chose the private sector approach because we knew it would be a competitive situation," Mr. Holman said. Speed, he said, was given the highest priority.

In Maryland, the competition was bogged down in election-year politics and debates about football that pushed the future of the Bullets and Capitals into the background.

The General Assembly began a three-month session in January, dominated by Jack Kent Cooke's plans to build a stadium in Laurel for his Redskins. Mr. Cooke invited Mr. Pollin to consider building an arena near his stadium, creating a sports complex with football, horse racing, hockey and basketball.

Soon, Mr. Pollin was fielding other suggestions, including an idea supported by some Baltimore officials for an arena next to Camden Yards, on the land cleared for a football stadium. The concept picked up the initial support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and some city lawmakers who saw it as a way to use money set aside for the football stadium.

But Washington-area lawmakers feared losing a major economic asset to Baltimore and opposed the idea.

Meanwhile, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, concerned about two competing pro sports teams next door, became involved in efforts to bring a National Football League team to the city, convincing Mr. Schaefer that his dream of returning major-league football to the city need not be abandoned yet.

"There was a sense that football was more pressing," said state Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

Eventually an agreement was reached and announced at the March summit at USAir Arena: $500,000 in state and Prince George's County funds would be set aside to study a new arena in the county. The county formally approved its share a few weeks ago.

The state money can't be spent until the new budget year begins July 1, and any major decisions would have to wait until the next legislative session, which begins in January, for enactment. The study effectively will be limited to Prince George's County, despite a trend toward downtown arena sites.

"We are doing everything we committed to doing," said Paul E. Schurick, Governor Schaefer's chief of staff. "The governor met with Mr. Pollin and Mr. Pollin's people recently, and we are proceeding as we promised we would," Mr. Schurick said. "We are full steam ahead."

Consultants, including Camden Yards architects HOK, are expected to be announced by the Maryland Stadium Authority next week. In Washington, meanwhile, preliminary drawings of a glass-sided structure and cost estimates already have been drawn up, and the team and district government leaders are deep into negotiations over who will pay for what.

There were hints earlier in the week that a memorandum of

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