Md. Opens Door to the Redskins

By Thomas Heath and Richard Tapscott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 10, 1994; Page A01

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ANNAPOLIS, March 9 -- Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke finally got the welcome he wanted from Maryland today when Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders wiped away major political obstacles to Cooke's dream of a 78,600-seat stadium in Laurel.

Three months after Cooke announced plans to move to the Maryland suburbs, Schaefer and top General Assembly leaders said his plan for a $160 million stadium adjacent to Laurel Race Course would be an "important economic asset" to Maryland.

The governor's grudging endorsement was crucial for the 81-year-old Cooke, who initially said he hopes to kick off the 1996 National Football League season in the new stadium. Without Schaefer's help, Cooke was bogged down in talks with state transportation officials, who can deny permits and plans for road construction around the site.

But after prodding from the legislature, the governor relented late Tuesday night and agreed to cooperate with Cooke and the Redskins. He signed a joint statement welcoming the Redskins' proposed move from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in the District. Previously, Schaefer had held Cooke's Laurel project at arm's length.

"The economic welfare of the state was at stake," Schaefer explained today. He was flanked by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).

Since early December, the test of wills between Cooke and Schaefer has gripped the State House, overshadowing and sometimes delaying important legislation in the final General Assembly session before the governor leaves office.

The move to Laurel still is not assured. Cooke now must run a gantlet of county zoning and state and federal environmental regulators, who have the power to hold up the project indefinitely. And Laurel residents and officials on all sides expect time-consuming lawsuits.

Reached at his home, an ebullient Cooke thanked Schaefer and the legislative leaders. "We've taken the first step toward a new Redskins stadium in the heart of the Washington-Baltimore corridor, which is Laurel," he said.

Cooke also promised to move quickly to file zoning applications with Anne Arundel County.

"If I have my way about it, it will be tomorrow morning," Cooke said. "And I expect I will have my way."

Miller called the agreement the equivalent of a Super Bowl victory for the state. "You ask if in three years or two years, will we be in Laurel, Maryland, singing 'Hail to the Redskins'?" the Senate president said. "I say to you, if the governor and speaker and myself have anything to do with it -- Hail, yes!"

Despite today's political compromise, there was no public agreement on who would bear the cost of the road and utility improvements or to what extent they might be passed on to ticket buyers or taxpayers. Cooke representatives indicated they may try to tap into revenue from existing taxes on professional sports tickets to pay off bonds for the road improvements.

Financial arrangements traditionally are worked out as part of the zoning approval, so no officials expressed concern today that the matter was left unresolved.

The deal cleared the way for Cooke to seek stadium zoning and construction permits from Anne Arundel County, a process that could last a year. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall (R) said today that Cooke's goal of opening in 1996 "would really be pushing it."

Until today, the governor had voiced concerns that an NFL team playing in Laurel, 20 miles northeast of the District, would spoil Baltimore's chances of getting its own franchise.

Remaining lukewarm even at the big announcement, Schaefer conceded that he did not receive his requested assurances from Cooke that the Redskins owner would support the governor's efforts to attract a team to Baltimore.

But Schaefer said circumstances have changed since January, when Orioles owner Peter Angelos began trying to buy another NFL team to move to a Baltimore stadium that would be built with available public funds.

"I wouldn't have signed this if I didn't think we were in a pretty strong position" to get a franchise in Baltimore, Schaefer said.

Cooke's major concern has been that the cost of the road improvements would come in at $100 million or more, making it too expensive. But the $52 million figure was welcome news to the multimillionaire, who still faces legal challenges from neighbors worried about traffic jams on Sunday afternoons.

The state study recommends $16.6 million in improvements to Route 198 between Route 1 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The study also recommends $8.3 million in changes to Route 1 from Contee Road to the stadium, and $6 million to improve a MARC train stop nearby.

The scope and price of the improvements could change once Cooke gets into the Anne Arundel land-use process, but the state-sanctioned $52 million figure now forms the benchmark against which supporters and opponents will deal.

The estimate assumes about two hours of stop-and-go traffic around the stadium before and after games.

The study also estimated that if Cooke spends up to $186 million for road improvements, it would shave 35 minutes off the time it takes to empty the parking lots. But the report characterized that as not essential, and Taylor noted that none of the negotiators suggested that the high-end option should be pursued.

Negotiations appeared doomed only days ago, but Taylor revived the talks through shuttle diplomacy. At one point he became so exasperated with Cooke's representatives that he wanted them all removed from the talks except for Cooke lawyer Alan Rifkin.

With the parties at an impasse, Schaefer walked late Tuesday night into the restaurant at the Loew's Hotel in Annapolis -- unaccompanied by his usual bodyguards -- and sat down at a table with Taylor and agreed to end his opposition.

In return, Schaefer won breathing room in his hunt for an NFL franchise for Baltimore. Today's agreement allows the governor to continue to hold onto $79 million in state-authorized bonds as a down payment for a new NFL stadium, should Angelos be successful.

The Orioles owner, who reportedly is offering a record $200 million for an NFL team, said today that Cooke's move will not complicate his hunt.

"I don't have any problem with Cooke building a stadium in Laurel and providing a first-rate facility for Redskins' fans," Angelos said. "I just gave {Schaefer} a report which was optimistic."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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