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  Md. Officials Delay Decision on Funding for Arena

By Thomas Heath and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 3, 1994; Page B01

ANNAPOLIS, MARCH 2 — Maryland's top legislative leaders said today they plan to put off a decision on whether to fund a new facility to replace the 20-year-old USAir Arena in Largo until they complete a major study of the project.

By putting the project on hold for at least several months, state leaders are making a calculated bet that sports entrepreneur Abe Pollin will not sell his two professional sports franchises or move them to the District or Northern Virginia, both of which have expressed an interest in the basketball Bullets and the hockey Capitals.

To reduce the odds of losing the teams, General Assembly leaders plan to meet with Pollin and Gov. William Donald Schaefer next week to get Pollin's assurances that he won't bolt from the state while the study is conducted.

Pollin's spokesman, Jerry Sachs, did not return a phone message left at his office yesterday.

In December, Pollin started talking with state officials about his need for a new arena and his desire to have it publicly funded. The arena is competing against other big projects for state funds, including road improvements for Jack Kent Cooke's planned Redskins stadium in Laurel, a conference center in Montgomery County and a convention center in Ocean City.

The proposed feasibility study, which is likely to take several months, could mean that Pollin would have to wait until the 1995 General Assembly session for substantial state funding. The General Assembly's 90-day session ends in April.

But a spokesman for Schaefer said today that the governor doesn't want to wait a year before making a financial commitment to Pollin, which could take the form of seed money to help pay for design and planning.

"The governor wants to get the ball rolling," said Page Boinest, Schaefer's press secretary. "He expects some taxpayer money will be spent to ensure that Mr. Pollin does stay in Maryland."

However, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor (D-Allegany) questioned where the money would come from. "I don't know of any big piece of money lying around this place that we could earmark for a major project that I know nothing about," Taylor said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), whose backing is crucial to Pollin's hopes for a new facility, has opposed giving the sports owner any state aid because he thinks sports facilities should be funded privately.

State lawmakers' arena discussions this week have focused on broad questions such as which government entity should control the project and such specific items as how to resolve Pollin's $35 million debt on the USAir Arena.

Turf battles are expected over what government agency will control the project. However, the more pressing issue is who will control the study, which will cover financing, site location, distribution of sky box revenue and other issues. Candidates include the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George's County government.

One major reason that some Prince George's legislators are taking a cautious approach to committing state money is their feeling that it is politically dangerous in an election year to be talking about funding sports arenas when there are unmet needs in public safety and education.

At the same time, serious tensions characterize the personal relations between some of the key parties trying to reach agreement. Miller, for instance, has had testy relations for years with Peter O'Malley, Pollin's close adviser, and would like nothing better than to make life difficult for him, Miller's associates said.

Some legislators have long memories of political difficulties in dealing with Pollin, remembering how voters punished several Prince George's County Council members in 1982 for supporting a tax break to keep the Capitals from leaving the area.

State Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) said legislators are increasingly uneasy with the perception that they are focusing too much attention on new arenas and a stadium.

"We're down here to deliver the bread — not the circuses," Green said.

State Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's) said he "could care less" if Pollin takes his teams elsewhere because the state didn't come up with new funds for an arena. "If he had a good product at USAir Arena, then people would show up," Trotter said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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