Rockets may see Baltimore as home-court alternative

With Houston rejecting arena financing plan, move possible for team

November 04, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The NBA Rockets, who have quietly explored a move to Baltimore over the past year, plan to take some time to assess their future in Houston in light of a stinging rejection by voters of an arena financing plan, a team official said yesterday.

The Rockets are among a handful of teams that have met with Baltimore leaders regarding a possible relocation to a proposed downtown arena, according to a source familiar with Baltimore's quest. Team representatives have visited Baltimore, which is considered a top prospect, the source said.

A ballot measure to build a $160 million arena in Houston -- and keep the team and its affiliated indoor football and women's basketball franchises -- failed Tuesday 55 percent to 45 percent despite a multimillion-dollar campaign by supporters.

Asked about entertaining offers from other cities to move, Rockets chief operating officer George Postolos, at a news conference in Houston, said, "We will not be doing anything in the short run."

He said the team had no contingency plan in the event the referendum failed, and would "take a step back" and digest the election results, which he said were a surprise.

"I'm going on vacation. We're taking a little time off, and then when we get back, I think our focus is not going to be on `arena, arena, arena' the way it has been. It's going to be on our core business," he said, according to a transcript of the news conference.

A Rockets spokeswoman declined to comment on any city that might be courting the team. New Orleans, St. Louis and Las Vegas are said to be seeking an NBA franchise.

Houston leaders vowed to try again. But Postolos was non-committal on how the team would respond. "I really couldn't speak to that today," he said.

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich was quoted in today's Houston Chronicle saying the loss was personal.

"I just thought that the Rockets and Comets were a big asset for the city," said Tomjanovich, who has been with the franchise in various capacities since the team moved to Houston in 1971. "But I guess I was wrong.

NBA commissioner David Stern was quoted in yesterday's Chronicle saying that the league would "not stand in the way" of the team relocating after its lease expires in 2003.

"They will stay [for now]. They will honor their lease, without question," Stern said. After the lease expires, the team's future is up to its owner, Leslie Alexander, Stern said.

Alexander, a Florida businessman, also owns the WNBA Comets and the Arena Football League ThunderBears. All three play in the city-owned Compaq Center, a 16,611-seat, 25-year-old arena that is the oldest in the NBA.

Len Perna, a Virginia-based sports consultant hired by Baltimore to study the feasibility of building an arena and luring a major-league tenant, declined to say if Houston was a prospect. But, he said, "They are somebody that we would like very much to speak to."

Working against arena-proposal supporters on Tuesday was Houston's ambitious menu of publicly funded stadiums. The city recently committed to constructing a $310 million football stadium for the NFL expansion team that was recently awarded to Houston. A $250 million baseball park for the Astros is nearing completion downtown.

Alexander had agreed to split the cost of the arena's construction, as well as build a $45 million parking garage and contribute $10 million toward extra arena concession facilities. He had also agreed to pay $1.1 million for capital expenditures.

In exchange, he would have received all revenue from naming rights and from tickets and concessions at events involving his teams.

Baltimore's planning department has spearheaded a drive to replace the 37-year-old Baltimore Arena, possibly as part of a west-side revitalization effort. Among the options the city is considering: a 12,000-seat arena with no major-league tenant, one expandable for a team, or a full-scale NBA or NHL facility.

Financing options are pending but city leaders have said building an arena would require both public and private money.

Perna said his first step will be to meet with Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley, whose support is necessary if the city continues to explore financing alternatives for a new arena and the possibility of procuring a NBA or NHL franchise.

O'Malley said last night that he would have to study the issue, and how an arena would be paid for.

"I'm excited about the prospect and will have to take a closer look at it. The thing I'm wary of is I don't want to comment on something until I know what it's going to cost. Does it preclude other things?" O'Malley said.

Among the city's prospects, the San Antonio Spurs had shown the greatest interest, going as far as spending money on studies of Baltimore's potential to host the team, said one source familiar with the situation. But San Antonio voters approved an arena for the team.

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