A House subcommittee approved the transfer of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium yesterday from the federal government to the District, but chances of Senate approval are questionable, according to congressional sources, because of concern about a potential leasing of RFK to Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Ownership of the 55,000-seat stadium has become a touchy political issue to local officials because of Washington's effort to obtain a major league baseball team, and because the transfer could result in increased competition between RFK and the Capital Centre in Landover.
The House in 1983 approved the transfer to the D.C. government, but the bill died without action in a Senate subcommittee headed by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.). Mathias, who could not be reached for comment, had expressed concern in 1983 about the terms of any proposed lease between Cooke and the city.
D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, chairman of the fiscal affairs subcommittee of the House District of Columbia Committee, said he is confident that the measure approved yesterday by his subpanel will pass the full House, and "we are hopeful the prospect of baseball" will overcome any lingering Senate opposition to city ownership.
Major league baseball owners are meeting in August to consider possible expansion, with Washington among the cities bidding for a professional team. Fauntroy, D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke and Pauline Schneider, the D.C. director of intergovernmental relations, told the subcommittee that city ownership of the stadium is crucial to winning a baseball franchise. They said prospective baseball team owners may be reluctant to deal with the "confusion" of playing in a facility that is owned by the federal government but operated by the D.C. Stadium-Armory Board.
The federal government supports the transfer, said Manus J. Fish, regional director of the National Park Service. "We feel it is appropriate that the District government have control over what is, in fact, a local facility."
But House and District officials said privately yesterday they are fearful the transfer may be scuttled again because of opposition from Maryland officials and businesses seeking to protect both the Capital Centre and the Baltimore Orioles from competition. Neither Abe Pollin, who owns Capital Centre, nor Edward Bennett Williams, who owns the Orioles, could be reached for comment.
If the District owned the RFK facility, it could be more flexible and aggressive in promoting concerts, sports events, and other activities, in addition to its crusade for a baseball team, city officials said.
"If there is a problem in the Senate, it is that many senators don't want to see Jack Kent Cooke get control. They would like to see some sort of committee or group set up to control it," said a Senate staff member.
Concern over Cooke's role arose in 1983 when it was disclosed that Mayor Marion Barry had discussed leasing terms with Cooke that would have given him operating control of the stadium in exchange for $500,000 in rent and a pledge to make improvements at RFK in the hope of landing a baseball team.
Cooke could not be reached for comment, and Barry's spokesman, Annette Samuels, said "the city would look at all its options" for running the stadium if it takes ownership. The Stadium-Armory Board would continue making decisions about leases, she said.
RFK, which opened in 1961, was built on federal land for $19.8 million with bonds issued by the Armory Board. Stadium rental revenues were expected to pay off the principal and $16.4 million in interest, but the city and federal governments were forced to share the costs. The city paid nearly $23 million and the federal government paid $10 million.