City plays delay game Cleveland argues Browns must stay through '98 season

Team disputes claim

Testimony at hearing to resume today

November 21, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Trying to stave off "irreparable harm" to Cleveland's treasury and reputation, lawyers for the city yesterday argued that the Browns are legally obligated to remain in town through 1998.

In the opening day of testimony in a case that could delay but not stop the Browns' intended move to Baltimore, the city displayed poster-size blowups of a clause in the team's 1974 lease that promises it will play all its home games here through 1998.

The team, however, argued that the lease was not with the city, but with the Cleveland Stadium Corp., a stadium-operating company run by Browns owner Art Modell.

"The city and the Browns were never parties to a contract. The city never had a contract with the Browns," Browns lawyer Dennis M. Kelly said in his opening statements before Cuyahoga County Court of Common Please Judge Kenneth R. Callahan.

The hearing, on a court order the city has requested that would bar the team from moving, is scheduled to resume today and could run through tomorrow. The case has attracted widespread attention in Cleveland, where the judge faces his first re-election next year.

The team wants to begin playing in Baltimore next season, first at Memorial Stadium and then at a $200 million facility adjacent to Oriole Park that will take 32 months to build.

With the predictably hostile local response to the move -- corporate sponsors have stripped their ads from the stadium and 17,000 ticket holders didn't show up on Sunday -- the Browns fear they would lose millions of dollars playing three lame-duck seasons here.

But the city, which is also lobbying the NFL to reject the move, yesterday presented arguments and witnesses in support of its request for preliminary injunction barring the move. The city has won a temporary court order to that effect, but it expires at the conclusion of these proceedings.

The team has offered to compensate the city for lost revenues, as departing tenants are often required to pay their landlords. Forcing the team to stay would expose it to security risks and potentially debilitating financial losses, its attorneys argue.

"This isn't the Dawg Pound, it's a court of law," said Browns attorney Robert C. Weber, invoking the fans from the legendary end-zone section.

The damage done to the city's esteem was done when the team announced it was moving, and no court order can reverse that, Weber said.

Furthermore, City Hall is to blame for the team leaving because it failed to adequately address the team's needs, he said. The Browns play in a 1930s-era stadium that is badly outclassed by modern facilities.

But the city says no amount of money can compensate it for the loss of prestige and spinoff economic benefits of having one of the 30 NFL franchises.

David A. Nolan, head of the regional convention and visitor's bureau, testified that the loss of the team diminishes its reputation and will cost it dearly as it competes for conventions ,, and tourists.

William Thomas Bogart, an economist with Case Western Reserve University, testified that the city would be much better off having the team even if only for another three seasons. The team draws visitors to town during the slack tourism season, he said.

Combined with other attractions, such as the recently opened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Browns help create a "critical mass" of jobs and investment. The team also gives the city a national reputation and contributes to the quality of life, helping to attract and retain businesses, he said.

But the benefits are impossible to quantify, he said. "Any conclusion you reach would be speculative," he said.

The case may hinge on the multi-layered leases governing the team's use of the stadium. The Browns agreed in 1973 to fix up the stadium in exchange for operating rights. Modell formed the Cleveland Stadium Corp. to do that, and signed leases with the Browns and Indians, who at the time were threatening to move to New Orleans.

L The Indians have since moved to their own park in Cleveland.

The city's lease with the Stadium Corp. contained a condition that the operating company obtain a written guarantee that the Browns would play there for 25 years.

The team signed such an agreement in 1974.

But Oct. 27 -- the same day the Browns formally agreed to move to Baltimore -- the team and stadium corporation amended the deal to allow the Browns to go if they paid the corporation $3.6 million in lost rent.

City attorneys say the amendment is unenforceable because the city was not notified of the change, and did not approve of it.

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