When Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke declared his wish to have a domed stadium built for his National Football League team, he created an economic development and political quandary for area politicians. They must now decide how best to respond to a situation that can result in the loss or gain of revenue for their respective jurisdictions.
The stadium issue for local jurisdictions is one of business retention versus business attraction. It is an economic issue that springs from a businessman's desire to improve the profitability of his business enterprise, pure and simple. That should be obvious by now to all but the most naive among local sports fans. Professional football, after all, is entertainment for only 60 minutes. It's always a business.
Cooke is no different than any other Washington businessman who has reached the conclusion that his company's facilities are too small or outmoded, thus limiting profits. But faced with higher costs of operating in inadequate facilities, owners of other large Washington businesses have either built new complexes or leased less expensive space in other jurisdictions. The list of such companies is long -- ranging from savings and loan associations to wholesale companies, from printing firms to retail chains needing more room for operations and distribution centers.
Having noted his space and earnings problems, Cooke put the ball in play in the offices of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and other elected officials in Northern Virginia and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland.
Although no one has been asked to subsidize Cooke's football business with public financing for a 75,000-seat stadium, some local officials have implied by their public statements that they expect the subject to come up eventually. Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer, for example, has been quoted as saying that most sports organizations seeking new facilities look to local jurisdictions to make major concessions in underwriting the effort. Kramer has made it clear that Montgomery County isn't in a position to do that.
If other local jurisdictions are in a position to make concessions, elected officials aren't about to talk openly at this point about underwriting a privately owned stadium in which few taxpayers will ever see a Redskins game.
"I hope, and almost pray, that one of our communities, preferably the District of Columbia, invites us to talk about building a new stadium for the Redskins," Cooke allowed.
After some delay, Cooke is getting his wish. Barry has agreed to talk with Cooke next week about Cooke's desire for a new stadium, and Prince William County officials have said they are willing to discuss the issue. Even though Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert had expressed doubt about his county's willingness to meet with Redskins officials, Cooke has spoken briefly with John F. Herrity, chairman of the county's board of supervisors.
But what is there to talk about if not major concessions as inducements for Cooke to build his dream stadium?
If concessions aren't the reason for Cooke's prayers for a meeting with area officials, then Cooke needs only to meet with private land owners and developers to discuss possible sites for a new stadium.
To be sure, in the economic development game that is as hotly contested as professional football, cities and counties routinely offer to make major concessions to attract a company. Tax abatements, industrial revenue bonds, land writedowns, road improvements, and, indeed, cash are the stuff of which successful economic development programs are made.
But in this case, Barry would be hard pressed to make such concessions to keep the Redskins in the city when other businesses are seeking the District's help with equally pressing problems and when other more demanding needs, such as housing, must be met within the limits of the city's budget.
Herrity cagily cited the need to review Fairfax County's land-use policy if the county is deemed to be the best location for the stadium. The truth is, neither Herrity nor anyone in other local jurisdictions wants to offend the District by seeming eager to lure Cooke's franchise, a symbol of economic prosperity, away from the city.
In the case of suburban Maryland jurisdictions, the stadium issue is a double-edged sword. An economic development official in Prince George's County summed up the situation with this candid observation: "We have 200 square miles of developable land close in, but we aren't about to say anything that will make anyone, especially the governor, unhappy."
Obviously not, since Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to build not one, but two, stadiums for professional football and and major league baseball in downtown Baltimore, less than 25 miles from Prince George's County.
Public officials need not squirm about their dilemma, however. Cooke has stated eloquently and firmly that he's no "gypsy" and therefore wouldn't move the Redskins.
If the public sector is unable to finance a new stadium and/or is unwilling to set back regional cooperation in a bitter contest for sports business revenue, then the only alternative for Cooke is to sit down and talk with his peers in the private sector. They're better prepared to discuss the business of investments, limited partnerships, ground leases and the like.