East of Rte. I-95 near the Baltimore Beltway lie more than 200 acres of a community known as Lansdowne. Much of the area is vacant, but a good deal of the acreage supports warehouses, truck terminals, an unsightly automobile graveyard and about 35,000 residents.
Lansdowne, which straddles the city's southwestern border with Baltimore County, seems an unlikely site for what has spawned the first heated exchanges in the 1986 gubernatorial race in Maryland. But a state commission has identified Lansdowne as its favored site to build a new sports facility to replace 31-year-old Memorial Stadium as the home of the Baltimore Orioles.
The stadium's future has been treated as an economic issue by Gov. Harry Hughes, who appropriated $200,000 and appointed a 13-member professional sports advisory commission last year to look into this and other matters. Just over a week ago, he found an additional $70,000 to allow the commission to conduct more extensive studies of each of the four proposed new locations. That study is due out by the end of the year.
But for Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor, the stadium has become a turf battle between two ambitious politicians who have distinctly different views on how best to stretch the city's and the state's sports dollar.
Schaefer, who thinks of the Orioles as Baltimore's team, insists that any new sports facility be built within the city limits, preferably at a site just west of the Inner Harbor known as Camden Yards. Sachs, who favors the idea of building a stadium closer to Washington, has said the mayor is being "parochial."
At stake is more than pride. A report compiled by the Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development for the sports commission showed that spending by Orioles fans for tickets, hotels, restaurants and other items totaled $93 million last year, part of a $1.1 billion state professional sports industry.
A new report prepared for the state sports commission by the New Jersey-based consulting firm of Touche Ross & Co. rules out the option of renovating Memorial Stadium, citing insufficient parking, cramped upper-deck seating, aging locker rooms and the lack of a nearby major highway that could eliminate commuting problems for Washington area fans. A copy of the report, which will not be formally released until later this month, was obtained yesterday by The Washington Post.
"The stadium has been negatively viewed by many people," said Bernard Manekin, a Baltimore builder who heads Hughes' commission. "It has many problems that are insoluble -- parking, limited access, poor structure, not enough good high-priced seats that make increased revenues possible."
A new stadium, the Touche Ross report said, also would "secure the Orioles' future in Maryland," and a long-term negotiated lease is recommended as part of the state's sports strategy.
The commission is scheduled to meet this afternoon in Baltimore to discuss the findings in the Touche Ross report, including an estimate that a new 70,000-seat stadium would cost $166 million, $30 million of which would be raised by a new annual sports lottery.
Manekin said his group has chosen to focus on Lansdowne, where land is valued at $75,000 an acre based on recent sales, and Camden Yards, where land has been priced at up to $1.5 million an acre. Lansdowne is the favorite of Manekin and most of the members of the commission.
Two other sites identified as "fallback" alternatives by Manekin are in Anne Arundel County near the interchange of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-695, and in Howard County near the interchange of Rtes. I-95 and 100.
Residents of the renovated row houses of the Otterbein neighborhood near Camden Yards have vigorously opposed any plan to build a stadium there. In Lansdowne, neighborhood leaders have voiced support and lobbied for the stadium proposal but are now faced with internal disagreement from residents of the nearby community of Bloomfield.
"We've been the guinea pigs for a lot of garbage," said Lansdowne Improvement Association President Theresa Lowry, who said even the traffic and crowds that a stadium attracts would be preferable to "wall-to-wall warehouses" on the industrially zoned land.
State Sen. John A. Pica Jr. (D-Baltimore), a member of Manekin's sports commission who is also part of the usually Schaefer-conscious city delegation to Annapolis, said the issue boils down to who will pick up the price tag for the project.
"If Baltimore found an operator who could build with his own money, then they could insist that it be built within the city," he said.
Sachs and others have estimated that 20 percent of the fans who go to Memorial Stadium commute from the Washington area. The Touche Ross researchers found that Maryland could support the Orioles in a new stadium even if Washington wins a new baseball franchise for RFK Stadium in 1987, but that such an occurrence "would have an adverse impact on future Orioles attendance." More than 2 million fans have attended Orioles' games in Memorial Stadium for each of the last three seasons.
Manekin maintains that "the Orioles would be in an excellent position to compete with anything that could happen."
"I think Washington is going to get a franchise," Schaefer said. "And it's not going to make any difference if you swing the Orioles down the road. There outside the city , it makes it nobody's team."
Manekin agrees with Sachs that Schaefer is placing unnecessary geographic and psychological limitations on the stadium's future.
"The commission's position is that it should be, must be and will be located in the Greater Baltimore area, and that the economic impact will inure to the city of Baltimore," Manekin said last week.
Schaefer, who until earlier this year favored renovating Memorial Stadium instead of building a new facility, remains adamant that the city is where the Orioles and any future National Football League franchise belong.
"We took a very hard stand that there is only one subdivision in the state that needs a stadium," Schaefer said in an interview. "It really is an economic tool for us. That's when the parochial label was put on us. I wanted it on us, because it's true."
Schaefer said he does not oppose the Lansdowne site but will ask that any new stadium be built on the 25 acres of the site that are in the city.
Sachs has seized on the stadium issue to illustrate the differences between Schaefer and himself. Schaefer, he argues, is too city-oriented and fails to understand the economic development boon that a sports franchise gives the state.
"The spirit who built Harborplace ought to really understand that," Sachs said.
So far, Schaefer has shrugged off Sachs' charges by calling attention to instances in which he has helped other state subdivisions retain industries that were threatening to leave. "No one else needs it," he said of the stadium.
All of those involved in the discussions agree that the key lies with Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, a prominent Washington lawyer, who has privately hinted that he would like to see a new stadium but has not publicly stated any preference for a location.
At least one group of northeast Baltimore diehards insists that the best place for the stadium is still on 32 acres on 33rd Street.
"We came up with a total cost of $39 million for all improvements," said City Council member Frank Gallagher, who feels that the money could pay for sky boxes, a 750-seat restaurant, new escalators and expanded parking. "The structure is just as sound as can be."