Cooke, Wilder Give Up on Stadium

By John F. Harris and Robert F. Howe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 15, 1992; Page A01

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Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder yesterday abandoned their plan to build a stadium at Potomac Yard in Alexandria, as Cooke rejected concessions that Wilder said were necessary to keep the proposal alive.

Cooke would not say yesterday whether he will seek to build a stadium elsewhere. But a source said the billionaire team owner's representatives have looked at two sites in Prince George's County, near Rosecroft Raceway and Capital Centre.

District officials also hope to renew negotiations with Cooke over locating a Redskins facility near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, but would not discuss their strategy. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said officials "remain cautiously optimistic" despite new obstacles involving the site.

The announcement that the Alexandria plan had been "irrevocably withdrawn" reignited hope among local officials in Fairfax and Loudoun counties that the team might be lured to other Virginia sites, although it is unclear whether Cooke would be interested.

The end for "Jack Kent Cooke Stadium at Potomac Yard" came when Cooke, believing the deal would no longer be profitable enough, wouldn't go along with all of the new concessions outlined Tuesday by Wilder, sources said. The revamped proposal was designed to reduce the state's cost by about $40 million compared with the original stadium deal that the two men secretly negotiated in the spring and that was widely criticized as a bad risk for taxpayers.

"Mr. Cooke made it clear to me that he could not accept these additional changes," Wilder said in a joint written statement with Cooke. "Therefore, I am sorry to say that we cannot proceed."

Cooke said: "I still believe that Potomac Yard is an ideal site for the new Washington Redskins stadium. I thank the governor for his valiant efforts to bring this plan to fruition, but in light of the dramatic changes which were proposed that I cannot abide, I now have no further interest in the Potomac Yard site."

The announcement was cause for celebration in Alexandria, where many city residents and virtually all city officials had bitterly opposed the stadium. Citizens Against the Stadium, a community group that led the fight, said the plan's failure "is a powerful example of ordinary citizens prevailing over the powerful and greedy."

Mayor Patricia S. Ticer said Alexandria will stick by the more generous development rights it offered the site's owners as a stadium alternative, considered to be an important reason for legislators' support of the city's position.

A spokeswoman for Virginians for the Stadium said members were disappointed and would welcome an alternative plan at another site in the area.

Well before the final collapse of the Cooke-Wilder talks, the Alexandria proposal was in grave trouble. It started July 9, the day the two men announced their intentions for Potomac Yard.

Many Alexandria residents and the City Council members said they didn't want the stadium under any circumstances and were angry that Wilder and Cooke had hatched the proposal without consulting the city.

Dozens of state legislators, who would have had to approve any subsidy package, said the plan was too expensive and doubted Wilder's estimates that the state eventually would reap enormous profits from a Potomac Yard stadium.

In the end, a wide range of people said yesterday, the Potomac Yard plan was doomed mostly by the way Cooke and Wilder tried to sell their proposal. The penchant for secrecy and independence that both men said brought them together on the deal may have been the very thing that killed the proposal.

They announced the Potomac Yard plan in a shower of mutual congratulation and in a way that gave many people the impression that Cooke and Wilder thought theirs was a done deal.

The announcement at Potomac Yard was a media extravaganza. Local television carried the event live. There was a large model of the 78,600-seat stadium on display, as well as signs declaring the site the home of "Jack Kent Cooke Stadium at Potomac Yard." NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, and so was Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

Wilder and Cooke slapped each other on the back and laughed uproariously at each other's jokes. The governor gloated over taking the Redskins away from Kelly: "All's fair in love and war," said Wilder, "and I love her madly."

"We are going to build a stadium here at Potomac Yard," Cooke vowed. "We will have that stadium ready by the 1994 season, and nothing is going to stop us."

Wilder said the announcement was the highlight of his administration.

"It came unraveled almost from the start," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-McLean), co-chairman of the Northern Virginia delegation. "It was the poorest example of a legislative public relations effort in Virginia that I've ever seen."

Both Wilder and Cooke have said in recent days that they were surprised by the vehemence of the opposition to Potomac Yard and that they had assumed most Virginians would be excited about the prospect of the Redskins playing in the state.

It was a pivotal miscalculation, especially during a time when the state government had gone through two years of budget cuts. Cooke would have built the $160 million stadium himself, but many thought the $130 million state subsidy for site improvements was unjustified.

"There may have been thinking that if the Redskins are Super Bowl champions, then everyone would have been rushing to get them to Virginia, and in different economic times that may have been the case," said Virginia House Majority Leader C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton).

In their statement, Wilder and Cooke said their plan was hurt by unfair publicity. "Although we recognized that some of the media was predisposed against bringing the Redskins to Potomac Yard, we never anticipated the intensity of the resistance before we could present the facts," they said.

Despite the breakdown of negotiations this week, there's no sign that Cooke and Wilder ever lost the close rapport that initially drew them together.

Sources close to the negotiations said that the three parties -- Cooke, Wilder and the state-controlled RF&P Corp., which owns Potomac Yard -- argued forcefully but civilly over the last two days, testing several possible compromises.

Cooke had agreed to give up 28 acres of free land that had been part of the original stadium package and to accept an admissions tax on tickets of at least 6 percent. Even with those concessions, however, sources said that by the time Wilder held a news conference late Tuesday, it was clear the deal was collapsing. The sources said there was no one issue that brought down the deal.

The Senate Finance Committee had issued a report estimating that Cooke could recoup his investment on the stadium within four years. But sources familiar with Cooke's position said he never believed estimates that a Potomac Yard stadium would be fabulously profitable.

By the time Wilder began to scale back the state's contribution, sources said, Cooke no longer believed he had a good deal.

Mark T. Finn, chairman of RF&P, said yesterday that "it was a tough negotiation all along" and that the parties simply could not reach a middle ground that each felt was sufficiently profitable.

The next question is whether Cooke will try to put his stadium elsewhere. In Maryland, a top General Assembly leader said representatives of the Redskins organization had expressed interest in vacant land near Rosecroft Raceway, a harness racing track in southern Prince George's County.

The track has about 300 vacant acres that could be developed as a stadium site, the legislator said, and some Redskins officials were said to have visited Rosecroft recently. Another site under consideration, he said, is near Capital Centre on farmland just inside the Capital Beltway at Ritchie Road.

A senior official in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration said yesterday that Schaefer has had no contact with the Redskins and is not encouraging any.

Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening said again recently that he believes the Redskins should play in the District. Montgomery County Council President Bruce T. Adams (D-At Large) yesterday repeated the position that he and County Executive Neal Potter have taken in the past: The county is not seeking to become home to a new Redskins stadium.

Staff writers Peter Baker, Steve Bates, D'Vera Cohn, Stephanie Griffith, James Ragland and Richard Tapscott contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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