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Cooke Buys Land Near Planned Laurel Stadium Site

By Serge F. Kovaleski and Richard Tapscott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 1993; Page A01

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Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke paid for a tract of land near Laurel Race Course yesterday as he launched an intensive effort to build political support for building a new stadium in suburban Maryland.

Reached at his home last night, Cooke confirmed that he paid $2 million for more than 25 acres of land just west of the racecourse, some of which could be used for stadium parking. It could not be learned last night who sold the land to Cooke.

The 81-year-old team owner is still negotiating with track owner Joe De Francis to buy another piece of land east of the racing complex where Cooke could build the stadium.

Another source close to the project said that Cooke holds options to purchase all the land he needs both for parking and the stadium.

In an interview earlier in the day, Cooke said, "I am committed to Laurel."

Meanwhile, District officials said they were considering sweetening their offer to keep the Redskins in the city. Sources said they were exploring the possibility of having the D.C. Armory Board offer to pay for the potential $8 million cost of removing lead from the site next to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Northeast Washington in order to keep the Redskins in town.

The question of who would pick up the tab for the lead removal has been one of the issues preventing the District and Cooke from signing a lease. George W. Brown, assistant city administrator for economic development, sent a letter to Cooke in which he said the two sides could resolve their differences by the middle of next month. He also wrote that he would not leave his post as previously planned until a deal with Cooke is settled.

Nonetheless, Cooke said he would not resume discussions with the District and was focusing on his proposal to build a new stadium on a 50- to 75-acre tract of privately owned land 20 miles northeast of downtown Washington.

"I am not interested," Cooke said of reopening talks with the District.

However, Cooke's plans to build a stadium near Laurel have run up against strong opposition from Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. In efforts to thwart the governor's threat to block construction of a stadium in Anne Arundel County, Cooke or his representatives have met with other state officials and local leaders.

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall said yesterday that he would "carefully consider" Cooke's proposal, as he would any other major project, despite a request from Schaefer that he reject it outright.

Neall, whom Cooke telephoned Wednesday, noted that cities and counties across the country have been eagerly soliciting football teams. "If it looks viable, we'll proceed," he said. "We're very, very early in the game. We're exchanging information. I'm not sure there's a lot to get excited about just yet."

Earlier in the day, Cooke met for more than an hour at his Northwest Washington home with Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. According to Miller, Cooke expressed a desire to meet with Schaefer.

Miller said the Redskins owner wants to give the governor assurances that he played no part in the National Football League's decision to bypass Baltimore in awarding two new franchises. Schaefer, who will be out of office in a year, has said that one of his main objections to a Laurel stadium is that it likely would kill any chance of Baltimore's getting a team.

"The governor should meet with him and give him an opportunity to express his views," said Miller (D-Prince George's), who has become one of the project's earliest and most ardent advocates. Cooke "wants to be a good neighbor to Maryland and wants to pay for the stadium and minimize any expense to the state for infrastructure."

Cooke has estimated that infrastructure improvements for the stadium would cost $36 million. The stadium is projected to cost $160 million.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he had not been contacted by Cooke or representatives of the Redskins and saw no reason for Schaefer to seek out Cooke.

"It would be up to {Cooke} to do that," said Page Boinest, Schaefer's press secretary. "The governor has kind of staked out his position. I'm not sure anything he's going to hear is going to change his mind."

Cooke also telephoned Laurel Mayor Joseph R. Robison on Wednesday to discuss the proposal.

"His first words were, 'This is not a ploy; this is not a trick,' " Robison said yesterday. "He said, 'We intend to build the stadium in Laurel.' "

Robison met Wednesday evening with Cooke's project manager, Walter Lynch, for a briefing on the Redskins' preliminary plans and to review a traffic study that had already been done.

The Laurel mayor acknowledged oppositon from some civic groups but said he believes their concerns about traffic and related problems could be allayed. If new roads are built into the stadium, he said, "they'll use it 10 times a year but we'll get to use it the other 355 days a year."

Lynch is scheduled to have a more detailed meeting on the stadium with Robison and the Laurel City Council next week.

The events that have transpired under the Laurel proposal are a contrast to when Cooke broke off negotiations with the District in the summer of 1992 and reached a deal with Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to build the stadium in Alexandria. Though he had strong backing from the state's governor, opposition from local politicians and civic groups had a large role in killing the deal.

Kelly administration officials said yesterday that other than trying to convince Cooke that a deal can be reached, they were for the most part taking a wait-and-see approach. Cooke has spurned a request by the city to revive stadium talks.

"Our strategy is to keep the light on, put the key under the mat and say, 'This is home,' " said one administration official who requested anonymity. "They don't want to talk. We will sit and wait."

Since Cooke signed a non-binding agreement with the city in February, he reportedly has grown increasingly frustrated by delays in the project, which would be built on federal land and would need the approval of at least a half-dozen federal agencies.

Members of Congress, who ultimately would need to approve the proposal, have challenged the use of federal land for private enterprise as well as the Redskins name, which Indian groups find offensive.

A lease with the city has been held up by the lead removal issue and questions about how much money from a proposed federal highway project near the stadium could be used to pay for road improvements. If the city agrees to pay for the lead removal, city officials said, it hopes to negotiate repayment from the Army Corps of Engineers, which placed the lead in the ground as a result of dredging the Anacostia River several decades ago.

The city already has agreed to waive property taxes on the stadium and sales taxes on concessions and to let Cooke keep virtually all fees for parking. In his letter to Cooke, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, Brown laid out other actions the District would take to get a lease signed in 30 days.

Among them, Brown arranged to meet with the Federal Highway Administration soon to determine how much money can be appropriated to the stadium project.

Brown's letter also said the District would respond to the questions raised by Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) at a hearing last month. Cooke refused to attend the hearing.

During the hearing, Norton grilled City Administrator Robert L. Mallett about renovating Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in lieu of building a new complex. In a Nov. 15 letter to Norton, Cooke described her peppering of Mallet as "extremely odd" and said it "flatly" contradicted what she had said in previous conversations with Cooke.

Norton said in an interview yesterday that Cooke had misunderstood the gist of her questions. Norton added that she believes the stadium deal was in trouble before the hearing.

"The fact that he did not appear I took as a sign that something was terribly wrong," she said. "That showed me the deal was coming apart."

Staff writers Dan Beyers and Kent Jenkins Jr. contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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