St. Louis' stadium gamble has been expensive bust for others

November 06, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

Lawmakers in St. Louis might be on the verge of winning a gamble that has cost other communities millions of dollars: building a stadium for a team that hasn't yet agreed to move there.

The $260 million facility under construction in downtown St. Louis will serve a dual purpose: a badly needed expansion of a convention center, and a 70,000-seat stadium replete with sky boxes and other luxury seating.

But in committing to the project, political leaders in Missouri gambled that a standing facility would be better able to attract an NFL team. Several others have lost that bet, including St. Petersburg, Fla., which has a baseball stadium but no team, and San Antonio, which has an NFL-ready stadium.

But Los Angeles Rams president John Shaw last week cited the availability of the stadium, and the "certainty" it brought to St. Louis' offer, as an issue weighing in the team's deliberations.

"It's a factor," Shaw said.

The Rams have said they are considering moving from Anaheim to either Baltimore or St. Louis.

Baltimore is offering to build a $160 million football-only stadium adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The funding has been approved, but the law requires a lease to be signed with the NFL before the bonds can be sold.

"It looks like the bonding is in place, but there's always a risk, and that's why we're playing out the St. Louis situation. The risk has been eliminated in St. Louis," Shaw told the Los Angeles Times last week.

Baltimore boosters in the NFL privately have expressed concern about a political climate in Maryland that is cooling to the stadium.

Chief among their concerns is the retirement of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor of Baltimore who has sought vigorously to return the NFL to the city but whose term runs out in January.

Neither of his two potential successors is from Baltimore City, and neither has demonstrated the fanaticism he has for the NFL.

However, because the stadium funding was put into law, it would require another law to revoke it, a significant hurdle stadium opponents have never come close to clearing.

Even if the next governor opposes the stadium, he or she would not be able to derail the project by him or herself, according to Ann Marie Zalewski, the capital budget coordinator for the General Assembly's Department of Fiscal Services.

The law provided for $255 million in revenue bonds for the baseball and football stadium. About $90 million will be available for the football project, along with about $20 million in cash already set aside for the facility and another $19 million a year expected in special lottery revenues available for football, Zalewski said.

The bonding authority is automatically triggered by the signing of a long-term NFL lease. "I wouldn't think anyone should have any reason to worry" about the funds being there for the project, Zalewski said.

Maryland's constitution imbues the governor with extraordinary budget authority, but the worst an anti-stadium governor can do is withhold a portion of the designated lottery revenues, forcing the Maryland Stadium Authority to replace those funds, Zalewski said.

Neither candidate seems ready to take that step. Democrat Parris N. Glendening has said he strongly supports Baltimore's football efforts. Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has said that, even though she prefers that private investors pay for stadiums, she would not block the project if a team move were imminent.

But at some point, if the search became protracted, she might move for finding another use for the money, she has said.

"An NFL team planning to come to Baltimore has nothing to fear from the election of Ellen Sauerbrey," said Carol Hirschburg, a spokeswoman for the candidate. "I'm sure if an NFL team comes to Baltimore, she will greet them with open arms."

A movement to revoke funding rose in the last session of the General Assembly but never gathered much steam. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicts the effort will have even less support in the coming session because the zoning request of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to build a stadium in Laurel was rejected and Orioles owner Peter Angelos has shown tenacity in seeking a football team.

"As long as there are viable investors from Baltimore, vigorously pursuing a team, and as long as Mr. Cooke's plans are in doubt, I don't think the General Assembly will take any action," Miller said.

"I think if there's an NFL team that's going to commit to Baltimore, the Maryland General Assembly will keep faith with the legislation that has been passed and keep faith with the constituents of metropolitan Baltimore, who I believe want a team," Miller said.

Sen. John Pica, chairman of the city's senate delegation and a lawyer in Angelos' firm, said he thinks he has the votes to block any effort to revoke stadium funding, through filibuster if necessary.

"If we don't get a team this year, there would be an effort to revoke funding and I'm confident we will prevail," he said.

Meanwhile, construction of a stadium would take a little less than three years, meaning a team agreeing to move now to Baltimore would not be playing in the new stadium until the fall of 1997, said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The land has been purchased and cleared, but several months of design work would be required, and groundbreaking probably would take place next May at the earliest, he said.

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