State officials dispute Pollin

Leaders say owner approached them about arena, not vice versa

November 25, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Did the state offer to build an arena at Camden Yards for the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals before turning to an NFL team?

The owner of the basketball franchise says so. But local officials dispute that account, and one even says it was the team owner who proposed a Baltimore arena be built for him but the idea was rejected.

Abe Pollin, chairman of Washington Sports & Entertainment, whose holdings include the Wizards and, until earlier this year, the Capitals, took out a full-page ad in yesterday's Washington Post. In the ad, he rebuts criticism of a special tax break that would have benefited him and his teams but failed last week to win congressional approval.

By way of background, Pollin said he had been approached by Maryland officials before he moved his teams from Landover to an arena he built in Washington and opened last year. The "Maryland folks," he wrote, "offered to build the new arena next to Camden Yards in Baltimore."

"Their offer was, `Abe, we will build the new arena and hand you the keys, and you will have zero debt,' " Pollin said.

Pollin said he opted instead to build in Washington, "against the advice of my closest advisers and my family."

"The offer I rejected was ultimately offered to the Baltimore Ravens, who accepted their offer. A new stadium was built with no investment by the owner and with no debt," he wrote.

Maryland Stadium Authority executive director Bruce Hoffman said his agency -- which controls the Camden Yards site -- made no such offer to Pollin.

"We would have needed to get the governor and the General Assembly to approve that, and we never got that far," Hoffman said.

The stadium authority's 1987 funding legislation specified stadiums for baseball and football. A clause -- inserted at the behest of Pollin's lobbyists, who opposed competing teams that close -- specifically prohibited the money from being spent on an arena at Camden Yards, although lawmakers could have changed that.

Hoffman said state leaders were studying ways to keep the franchises in the state when Pollin struck a deal with Washington. "Before we finished, he had left," Hoffman said.

Pollin doesn't say in his ad when the offer was made, and, through spokesman Matt Williams, declined yesterday to be more specific. But the chronology of other events mentioned in the ad suggests he means 1994, when he was having on-again, off-again talks with Washington leaders. A year before, Baltimore had lost its bid for an NFL expansion franchise. The next year, the Cleveland Browns agreed to move to the city and became the Ravens.

Political intrigue concerning sports was thick in 1994. The Redskins said they wanted to build a stadium at Laurel, but then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, committed to getting an NFL team back to Baltimore, fought them. There was a strong movement in the General Assembly to rescind the stadium funding plan and use the bonding capacity for prisons, schools or other things.

Some lawmakers, and, for a time, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, floated the idea of giving up on the NFL hunt and using the bonding authority to finance an arena instead. Pollin's teams were mentioned as possible tenants during that debate.

Other state leaders, however, were reluctant to allow Baltimore to poach two teams from Prince George's County.

Schmoke spokesman Clint Coleman yesterday said Pollin, unhappy with the revenue he was drawing from the USAir Arena, came to the city in late 1994 and met with Schmoke.

"It was he [Pollin] who approached the city and state. He said: `You'll never get an NFL team. Why don't you build an arena and I'll move my teams there?' " Coleman said.

He said the idea never went forward because it failed to attract sufficient political support.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who was involved in the state's efforts to keep the teams in his native Prince George's County, said he knows of no arena offer to Pollin.

"Nobody offered him a facility. What was considered at that time was incentives to continue his presence in Maryland," Miller said.

Although Miller was quoted in 1994 as opposing an intrastate move of Pollin's teams, he said yesterday that he would have preferred that to losing the franchises to Washington.

In 1995, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening became governor. He and John Moag, whom Glendening had appointed head of the stadium authority, decided to give the NFL pursuit another year before looking at other options -- including a Baltimore arena.

Pollin went ahead with his arena in Washington, breaking ground in October 1995 and opening it in 1997. The Browns agreed to move to Baltimore in November 1995. Contrary to Pollin's account, the Ravens did contribute to their stadium -- the equivalent of $12 million -- at the insistence of lawmakers.

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