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  Loss of Pollin's Franchises May Ground USAir Arena

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 1994; Page A01

It was, perhaps, an obvious question. But by all accounts, no one ever asked what would happen if Abe Pollin decided to move his basketball and hockey teams out of the 19,000-seat USAir Arena, a private facility he built 21 years ago in Landover on public land.

"We just assumed that as long as he was there and leasing the property, the teams would be playing there," said John W. Rhoads, until recently the chairman of the Prince George's Planning Board and its chairman when the last of several lease amendments was negotiated in 1988.

County officials based their confidence on signals sent by Pollin, who declared that year, "The Bullets will always be in the Capital Centre {since renamed USAir Arena}. They will never move. The Bullets will always be there."

But he didn't put the pledge in writing. And now that Pollin has announced plans to foot the bill for a new downtown arena for his Washington Bullets basketball club and Capitals hockey team, county officials are wondering whether the sports palace by the Beltway is a white elephant.

Wayne K. Curry, the new county executive, asserted that all legal options are under consideration, and he cautioned that "sports stadium and arena deals are tenuous at best and have a propensity to fall through."

But what if this one doesn't fail? County lawyers could argue that Pollin is implicitly bound to keep his teams at the Landover arena because the 1971 deal allowing him to build it — in which the county borrowed $2 million for roads and infrastructure — hinged on his ability to deliver the basketball and hockey teams.

"If {Pollin's partnership} takes the professional sports franchise to another site but continues to operate the arena, it could be considered in breach of an implied covenant to keep the teams at the arena," suggests a document prepared by the office of Ron Schiff, general counsel of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Should the county sue to enforce the lease, it could wind up owning an arena without home teams. "That's not necessarily a great thing," said Brian Flood, a Curry spokesman. "We don't have the capacity or expertise to operate it."

The key element then, said Flood, "would be damages," based on the amount of revenue lost because Pollin moved his teams.

Pollin promised Curry on Wednesday that USAir Arena, on which Pollin still owes at least $35 million in bank loans, would continue to be "viable" under his management.

But 100 empty dates on the entertainment calendar left by the departure of the pro teams is "a helluva lot of time to fill," Flood noted, "especially when there's a competing downtown arena which he also has to fill."

Pollin originally was granted a 20-year lease on the arena land. In 1988, lease terms were extended to permit Pollin to borrow $5 million for an adjacent office building and arena improvements.

The county derives about $450,000 a year in direct revenue from the arena, mostly from amusement tax receipts. Overall, county officials say, the arena has generated $50 million in direct and indirect revenue for Prince George's since it opened in 1973.

Pollin's lease for the 60 acres that hold the arena, parking lots and the 50,000-square-foot headquarters building apparently remains in effect, possibly until 2022, when the county will inherit free and clear a 50-year-old arena and a 30-year-old office building.

Maryland Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening, until this month the Prince George's county executive, said Pollin assured him Wednesday of his intention to keep the arena booked even after his teams start playing in the District in 1997.

"He seems to believe it will be a very active center, perhaps having as many nights of activity as the current center," Glendening said. "There would possibly be some sports but also concerts and variety shows, Ice Capades, circuses, NCAA sports."

But Winfield M. Kelly Jr., a former county executive and early booster of the arena, said, "The teams are critical. As the teams go, the {arena} goes."

Over the years, the county has been Pollin's suitor, repeatedly offering him favorable terms to lure and then keep him and his teams in Landover.

In an earlier competition with the District, the county persuaded Pollin to build his arena in such an obscure place that it was the butt of jokes. But the county waived property taxes, fought off a court challenge and agreed to build roads and patrol the grounds.

When Pollin complained in 1982 that the Capitals were losing money, he won another controversial tax break by threatening to move the team unless county officials reduced their share of the amusement tax for three years. Six years later, the county again yielded to Pollin, this time extending the lease to provide collateral for a Nations Bank loan to improve the arena and to construct an office building for his 300 employees.

Robert Arciprete, chief of park planning and development for the county, recalled that the staff recommended Pollin's request be rejected because it was "without any compensation" to the county. But the planning board, the Prince George's County Council and Glendening all supported the deal.

Pollin always has been represented by the law firm of Peter O'Malley, a longtime power in Democratic circles. O'Malley's daughter, Susan, is managing director of the Bullets.

With the fate of the Landover arena up in the air, Wallace Stephens, president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, floated an idea yesterday: What if Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, whose plans to build a new football stadium in Laurel are running into opposition, built it on the Landover site instead?

"It was just an off-the-cuff remark. But it's a good idea. I'm going to pursue it," said Stephens, adding, "Mr. Cooke doesn't know about it yet."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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