Bengals likely to stay put Baltimore out of hunt

June 23, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

CINCINNATI -- Baltimore's hopes of luring the NFL's Bengals suffered a stinging and probably fatal blow yesterday when officials here proposed a $100 million tax increase to build a pair of stadiums.

Leaders of Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, said that they would increase the county sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to build stadiums for the Bengals and the baseball Reds, who share 25-year-old Riverfront Stadium and are threatening to move if new facilities aren't built.

Two of the county's three commissioners endorsed the $540 million stadium proposal, assuring it of passage. In addition to the sales tax, the county proposes to raise $109 million from the state and $130 million from "private sources," probably season-ticket fees and auctioning off the right to name the stadiums to corporate sponsors.

State leaders have publicly agreed to pay for their share, equal to about 15 percent of the project.

Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls vowed to fight the plan as written, but acknowledged that the toughest part of saving the Bengals, getting someone to raise taxes, appeared accomplished.

The plan also drew criticism from anti-tax forces, which promised to lead a petition drive to put it to referendum, and the state's teachers union, which wants school funding included in the package.

Nevertheless, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said it appeared the hunt for the Bengals was over.

"We are actively engaged in discussions with other NFL owners and are also pursuing the potential for non-football related uses for the Camden Yards property," Moag said.

A Bengals attorney notified Moag yesterday that the team thought it had a deal, despite the uncertainty of the funding. Moag said he wished them luck.

"I'm a believer that when push comes to shove communities will step up to the plate. I think this is risky for [Bengals owner] Mike Brown, but if he wants to take that risk to stay in Cincinnati, he will," Moag said.

Said Brown, "I think we are going down the right path. . . Make no mistake about it, we're not there yet. The next few days are going to be critical."

Asked if he was concerned about a possible tax repeal next year, Brown said, "It's a risk that's involved in this and one we will address in some way."

Brown declined to say how he could protect the team from that contingency, but Mayor Qualls said Brown has indicated he wants a year-to-year lease until the funding issues are settled.

Asked about the Bengals' fans in Baltimore, Brown said, "Those people deserve an NFL franchise and in my book, they will get one; it might not be mine, but they will get one."

Maryland has funding in place for a $200 million stadium to be built adjacent to Camden Yards. The Bengals were the latest of several teams to explore the offer, considered a powerful inducement for a league increasingly driven by stadium revenues.

Moag had issued a deadline of the end of the month for the Bengals, after which he said the state would no longer talk to the team. He said yesterday that he would not extend the deadline and anticipated no further talks with the club.

Designed to pressure the team to make a decision, the deadline also had the effect of spurring action among Cincinnati's political and business leaders.

"I think that drove most of this. But if it wasn't Baltimore it would have been someplace else. These franchises aren't tied to a community anymore," said Hamilton County commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, the author of the plan.

The Bengals released a statement saying that their reaction "is one of great expectation. This is a huge step forward."

"There remain critical details to be worked out with the city. We expect these can be resolved and concluded quickly," the team said.

The statement, and news conference by county leaders yesterday, appeared designed to pressure City Hall into going along with a package the county called "non-negotiable."

Among its provisions were several that would cost the city money: transfer control and revenues from the existing Riverfront Stadium as well as the two new ones, including city taxes on admissions, player incomes, incomes of construction workers building the stadiums, and stadium property.

Bedinghaus, who took several jabs at a "leadership vacuum" in the city, said the revenue provisions of the plan were necessary and fair because the county would pay for the stadiums.

Although he predicted additional talks with the teams and business leaders before the plan would be finalized, Bedinghaus pointedly rejected negotiations on the city's contributions.

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