Cooke Shift Sidelines Stadium

By Karlyn Barker and Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 3, 1992; Page A01

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Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke told Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. yesterday that he cannot meet Lujan's deadline today for concluding negotiations with the District on a new football stadium and again warned that he may take the project -- and the team -- to the suburbs.

Lujan, who had already extended an earlier deadline by 30 days, immediately informed Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly that he will proceed with two other projects that would tie up federal land in the District that Cooke had hoped to use for stadium parking.

Cooke's comments and letter to Lujan, coming during a week in which the District had been making plans to announce the completion of a stadium deal, caught the mayor and other city officials by surprise.

"This was truly unexpected," said Kelly, who released a statement saying that Cooke had called her to say he planned to "indefinitely postpone further exploration" of building a stadium next to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the Redskins now play.

A spokesman for the mayor said later that the phrase "indefinitely postpone" had not been used by Cooke but was "just our way of saying that what was expected to happen tomorrow is not going to happen tomorrow and no date has been set to resume discussions."

Cooke said in an interview and in his letter to Lujan that he was unable at present to conclude the deal. Asked if prospects for building the stadium in the District were now "dim," Cooke agreed with that assessment.

"I told {Lujan} we are facing problems and that I doubt we can overcome these problems at the present time," Cooke said.

In his letter to Lujan, Cooke thanked the Interior secretary for extending the deadline for concluding negotiations to April 3, but added, "Regrettably, I am unable to comply."

Cooke wrote that Kelly and Wilson "are working diligently" to get a stadium deal, then added, "but if conditions beyond their and my control prevent building the stadium in the District (my first preference) then I shall have no alternative but to build it elsewhere."

The Redskins owner, who also called Lujan yesterday to tell him of the letter, did not ask the Interior secretary to extend the deadline a second time, something a Lujan spokesman said the secretary would have done if Cooke had asked. Cooke did not elaborate, nor did his letter to Lujan give any reason for the failure to reach agreement with the District.

City officials declined to comment publicly yesterday on why Cooke, a billionaire who made his fortune in real estate and communications investments, had put the stadium project on hold. But they speculated that the poor state of the economy may have caused Cooke to have second thoughts about the $150 million, 78,600-seat project. Cooke has promised to pay for the stadium if the city provided $60 million in roads, lighting and sewers.

Cooke also has been concerned in recent months about environmental regulations and other hurdles the project may encounter in the District, hurdles that could jeopardize completing the stadium in time to host the World Cup soccer final in the summer of 1994.

Stadium negotiations have dragged on for nearly five years and through two mayoral administrations, and Kelly yesterday tried to put the best face on the latest delay.

"I trust our mutual time and energies have not been in vain and we will renew our mutual interest in a stadium when he is prepared to resume discussions on this matter," she said in her statement.

Cooke told Lujan he could not predict when a decision will be reached. Asked later about other potential sites, the Redskins owner said he has "always had alternatives -- three of them -- in Virginia from Day One."

Cooke has long threatened to take the team to the suburbs if he cannot get a deal to his liking from the District. Cooke's representatives have explored backup sites in Northern Virginia and kept in touch with Fairfax Board Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R). Davis said yesterday he would love to have the team in his county.

State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield) sponsored a bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly this year to create a baseball stadium authority if the state ever lures a team. He has asked Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) to amend the bill to allow football as well, but Wilder has not acted on the measure.

"They're welcome, name and all," Saslaw said yesterday, referring to a proposal by a few D.C. Council members to get rid of the name Redskins, considered by some to be offensive to American Indians.

Lujan, in a letter to Kelly, said he was instructing the National Park Service to proceed with long-delayed renovations to Langston Golf Course and to move ahead with plans for a proposed Children's Island family-oriented recreational park on Kingman Island.

Staff writers James Ragland and Peter Baker contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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