Cooke Says Laurel Gets Stadium

By Serge F. Kovaleski and Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 8, 1993; Page A01

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Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke said yesterday that he had chosen a site near Laurel Race Course in suburban Maryland as the football team's future home.

Changing his mind for the third time in 18 months, the 81-year-old team owner said he now would try to build the 78,600-seat stadium on privately owned land 20 miles northeast of downtown Washington instead of the federal property next to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

Although Cooke has some support among Maryland politicians, Gov. William Donald Schaefer reiterated his strong opposition to the stadium yesterday and promised to do all he could to prevent its construction.

Opposition from Schaefer and other Maryland officials could block required authorizations and permits, which could tie up construction of the stadium for months or longer.

Cooke, who for five years has held on-again, off-again talks with the District about putting up a new football facility, said in a brief statement yesterday, "I now know that I cannot overcome the forces against me. So I have decided to build the stadium elsewhere."

There was immediate speculation in the city that Cooke's announcement was a negotiating tactic designed to pressure the District and the federal government to move the project forward. But in documents released late yesterday by the Redskins, the Cooke organization said the Laurel deal is not intended as a ploy.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who as mayor began negotiating for a new stadium with Cooke in 1988, said: "He's very unpredictable. I wouldn't take this as the final word of Jack Kent Cooke. I suspect when it's all said and done, he's going to be back in the District."

The District's stadium deal has been delayed by congressional concerns and by more than a half-dozen federal agencies -- including the National Capital Planning Commission and the Interior Department -- that would need to approve the project, as well as hitches in negotiating a lease with the city.

According to a source close to the negotiations, Cooke was particularly frustrated with the slow pace of the federal bureaucracy and the District's inability to speed the process.

Other sources familiar with the latest deal say the team owner has a handshake agreement with Laurel Race Course owner Joe De Francis to buy the land for the stadium and lease more for parking, but no details have been worked out. Those who are familiar with the negotiations said the land purchase and construction of the stadium in Laurel would cost Cooke about the same as the District proposal.

Under Cooke's deal with the District, the city would waive property taxes on the stadium and sales taxes from concessions and parking. In addition, the city would pay $46 million for road and other improvements, money that Cooke eventually would repay. Cooke would pay the estimated $160 million for stadium construction.

Although it is unclear whether Cooke would seek similar tax concessions from Maryland, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.) said Cooke estimated that about $36 million in public money would be needed for improvements, mostly roads. Bentley, a candidate for governor who favors the Laurel move, said she met with Cooke last week at his home in the District.

A source close to the deal said that Cooke acknowledges that building in Laurel ultimately could cost him more money but is willing to take that loss to get the stadium built quickly.

Cooke said in the statement yesterday that he expects the new stadium, which would be built on 50 to 75 acres on the northeast corner of the racecourse, to be ready for the opening of the 1996 football season.

Cooke would not talk about the deal while leaving the Redskins' practice facility yesterday and did not return several phone calls.

Schaefer said he is concerned that such a project would jeopardize Baltimore's chances of getting a professional football franchise. The governor also has expressed some irritation over the Redskins' voting last week to approve an expansion team for Jacksonville, Fla. Baltimore had been a candidate for that franchise. Schaefer said he had been given assurances that Cooke would not try to impede Baltimore's efforts to get a team.

Referring to Cooke's plans for Laurel, Schaefer promised yesterday that the state "will not assist or cooperate with such a move as long as I am governor."

He said his administration will not provide money for roads and other improvements around the site, and he hinted that state regulations will be strictly enforced to block construction.

Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, also has criticized Cooke's proposal to move the team north.

Officials of D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's administration said yesterday that they were caught off guard by Cooke's announcement. City Administrator Robert L. Mallett said that the city has thus far held up its side of the bargain and that he is hopeful the stadium will be built in the District.

"We have done all that we said we would do," Mallett said during a hastily called news conference. "We have clean hands in respect to what we were going to do to move this forward.

"We want to keep the football team that is in Washington, D.C., and bears its moniker. . . . We have our fingers crossed, legs crossed, arms crossed and our eyes crossed that we can keep them here."

Kelly, who was celebrating her second wedding anniversary, did not attend the news conference.

Since the memorandum of understanding was signed in February, the District has spent nearly $2 million on the project, including the cost of the environmental impact statement and legal and public relations fees.

Among the delays in the District was completing the impact statement for the project after testing found significant lead contamination at the site next to RFK. Members of Congress also raised questions about whether the land on which the stadium would be built should be used for private enterprise and whether RFK should be renovated instead. Because the site, in the Kingman Park section of Northeast Washington, is federally owned, congressional approval is needed for the project.

"It doesn't seem that there was a serious effort on {Cooke's} part to resolve the issues with Congress," said Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, which recently held a contentious hearing on the stadium that Cooke refused to attend.

Vento, who has challenged aspects of the District stadium deal, added, "I don't think he was acting in good faith. He knew that building an additional stadium on parkland would be a challenge."

The D.C. Council also has not approved a final lease agreement with Cooke. One sticking point has been whether the District, Cooke or the federal government should pay for lead abatement at the site, which could cost $8 million.

Cooke has told friends that under no circumstances would he resume negotiations with the District and that he will try Loudoun County in Virginia if the Laurel deal does not work out.

Cooke's announcement yesterday evoked memories of when he broke off negotiations with the District in the spring of 1992 and reached a deal with Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to build the stadium in Alexandria. But community opposition and an inability to reach agreement on concessions eventually thwarted that deal, and Cooke resumed talks with the District.

Cooke also has been looking at a 400-acre site in Loudoun County about 1 1/2 miles from the Redskins' training facility in Ashburn.

Although the Loudoun talks appeared to be further along than the Laurel discussions, those close to the negotiations said the Maryland site is more attractive to Cooke, in part because it sits between two major population centers, Washington and Baltimore.

"Loudoun wanted it, and the whole thing could have been sealed in three hours," said Cathleen A. Magennis, Virginia's secretary of economic development.

Virginia Governor-elect George F. Allen called Cooke during the last several days to encourage his interest in Virginia, an Allen spokesman said.

Laurel Race Course owner De Francis said construction would necessitate the relocation of the track's stables, the cost of which would be paid either by Cooke or the two men.

De Francis said there are no plans "at this point" for Cooke to take an equity position in the racetrack. He also said he did not know what regulatory hurdles would need to be cleared for the project.

De Francis said the sale of the land would help Laurel financially at a time of need, the track having incurred an estimated $4.7 million net loss for the first three quarters of this year.

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, John F. Harris, Vinnie Perrone, James Ragland, Richard Tapscott and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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