Storer Cable Communications Inc. today will become the second major firm to withdraw from competition for Fairfax County's cable television franchise, leading some Fairfax officials to fear that few companies will bid for the right to serve the county.
Storer, which recently won a franchise for half of Prince George's County, is represented by a high-powered collection of former Fairfax and Prince George's officials. The company, a subsidiary of the Miami-based Storer Broadcasting Co., had been expected to compete aggressively for the Fairfax franchise, which a study last spring estimated would be worth $260 million in 15 years.
In a letter to Fairfax Executive J. Hamilton Lambert dated today but hand-delivered late yesterday afternoon, Storer president Arno W. Mueller says that economic considerations and what he calls burdensome county requirements persuaded Storer not to bid. Storer's decision follows by about three weeks a similar withdrawal by Warner-Amex, also one of the biggest cable firms in the nation.
A spokesman for Storer also joined Warner yesterday in complaining that Fairfax established expensive and time-consuming disclosure requirements for cable firm owners. The disputed provisions are intended to prevent under-the-table political pressures on the franchise-award process.
Storer was represented in Prince George's by former county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. and in Fairfax by former county attorney F. Lee Ruck and former supervisor Alan H. Magazine.
"Of all the companies, you'd think they'd have the most to disclose," said Supervisor Audrey Moore of Annandale.
Fairfax officials expressed concern that economics may limit competition in the county, where cable bids are due Feb. 1 after more than three years of study by county officials and commissions. Cable television, which can offer more than 50 channels of sports, entertainment and other programming, promises huge profits but requires huge initial investments as well.
"We may get seriously caught in the recession," said one official in Fairfax, who asked not to be identified. "I think the cost of capital could be driving companies out of the market."
Lambert could not be reached for comment yesterday on whether the withdrawals could further delay the franchising process. Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican, said that at least one aspect of the county's cable rules -- the 10 percent franchise tax -- may have to be reconsidered.
Both Davis and Moore, a Democrat, both said the disclosure requirements will not be changed. "That's garbage if anyone tries to hide behind that," Davis said. "Obviously no one's comfortable with it."
Storer blamed the possible 10 percent fee and "the numerous demands of the county to provide service for educators and other institutional groups in the community" for raising the cost of laying cable in Fairfax. A Storer spokesman said the requirement to list all shareholders with 1 percent or more stock would also be burdensome.
Supervisor Moore suggested that Storer, with its Prince George's franchise, may have decided it could not afford to take on Fairfax as well, just as Warner-Amex recently got the nod for several potentially lucrative franchises in New York City. "I got to wondering when some of these companies would decide they'd bit off more than they could chew," she said.