Civic pride tipped balance for stadiums Leaders used 'intangibles' to trump doubts over economic benefits

March 24, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

Along with the bottom line arguments, Maryland's stadium salesmen called their product a tonic for the soul.

Psychic renewal became a theme of the successful campaign to win approval of a $270 million in public spending for football facilities in Baltimore and Prince George's County. If the claims for job creation and capital flow were challenged, government leaders turned to "intangibles."

With last week's approval by the House of Delegates, the two stadiums are all-but facts of Maryland life. They will produce some jobs and, perhaps, some additional economic activity. Beyond that, the citizens may now look forward to another burst of stadium-based euphoria when the new football stadiums open in about two years.

That warm prospect was offered again last week in a letter made public just before last Thursday's climactic vote: Three former governors urged legislators to back the spending and one of them went quickly to the binding tie that football weaves through our culture.

"Having an NFL team means more than jobs and revenue for our state," wrote William Donald Schaefer who had toiled for a decade to get Baltimore back in the big leagues of football.

Baltimore, he said in his letter, had been spiritually "deflated" when the Colts left in 1984. Even if it was true that the team's owner had deserted, civic honor and status had slipped.

"Pride and community spirit are the more important contributions. . . While 60,000 citizens could be physically present for home games, millions of Marylanders invested pieces of themselves in the Colts' fate," the former governor wrote.

Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, James Brady, put it a bit differently:

"Look at Cleveland," he said, referring to the city now suffering as Baltimore did 12 years ago. "This has made them less of a first class city."

Even the opponents did not challenge the importance of sporting or other institutions that bind people together. But they wondered if a heavy dose of nostalgia would really be much of a cure for what ails Baltimore.

In Houston, mayor Bob Lanier, said he was not concerned about the loss of anything when the NFL Oilers said they were leaving. First class, he said, means staying focused on priorities: schools, public safety, job training and the like.

More pithy was Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican: "You can't pay your bills with prestige."

Virginia, he said during last week's House debate, has no football team, no basketball, hockey or baseball team but it does have a 5 percent annual rate of growth in job creation.

"Maryland's growth rate is close to zero," he said, adding "Poor Virginia. They have no prestige."

But the argument had at least one other dimension: Maryland would lose prestige if it turned down a deal approved by its legislature and negotiated by the governor. As much opposition as there was in his home district, said Del. John Arnick, voters PTC understand that "a deal is a deal." Legislators should understand that state's "full faith and credit" were pledged by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the assembly when they dispatched the Stadium Authority to make the deal.

The state's valuable AAA credit rating could be at stake if it failed to honor the deal with Mr. Modell, he said.

In the end, the House rejected efforts to undo the spending commitment, trusting to some extent that the governor is right when he says short-term political pain from stadium opponents will be replaced by in the longer run by gratitude for a return to the NFL and pride in yet another new stadium. His view would get support from those who study the role of sports in society.

Sports provides "a reassuring rhythm," said H. G.Bissinger, author of "Friday Night Lights," a book about the centrality of high school football in Texas. "Don't underestimate the power of sports," he said. "It's not just entertainment. It's what keeps small-town America together."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., recalled an observation of former governor Marvin Mandel: The state always seemed easier to manage, Mr. Mandel said, when the state's teams, professional and college, were doing well.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Hagerstown, bought the basic pitch but assigned it to a different era, to history. He had gone to Colts' games at Memorial Stadium with his father, he said, and was thrilled even then to feel "the whole city and state moving in the same direction on Sunday afternoon."

"You could have a steelworker sitting on one side of you and a banker on the other side," he said. But that was then, a time which cannot be re-captured in a stadium like the one now envisioned at Camden Yards, a place where some fans will be asked to pay large sums to own their seats.

Representatives of the two teams the Washington Redskins who will move to Landover and the refugee team from Cleveland owned by Art Modell in Baltimore assured legislators that common folk will still have a place in their new palaces.

Prince George's County attorney, John McDonough, who joined Governor Glendening's stadium sales force, said the argument really wasn't that intangible after all. Orioles Park at Camden Yards, he said, had proved again and again the human value of sports in Maryland.

"Every now and then," he said, "you ought to believe your eyes."

What could happen, he warned, is quite the reverse of uplift, particularly for the Democrats now in power and pushing the stadiums.

"If the polls are accurate as I take them to be, people are against these stadiums. We'll just have to see what sort of reaction there is at the polls."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter in The Sun's State House Bureau.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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