The $31 million Sports and Learning Complex in Landover--a high-tech sports facility with an Olympic-size pool, indoor track and fitness center--has inspired no shortage of breathless oratory from county leaders who celebrated its long-delayed opening last weekend. The complex was built as part of the deal with Redskins when they won the right to construct nearby FedEx Field.

But there have been some missteps. A combination of community concerns about the cost of membership--among the highest in the region--coupled with disputes over the construction, have left some lingering questions.

The project, nonetheless, is considered by local leaders to be a key element in their ongoing effort to portray Prince George's as a county on the upswing.

At a festival-like ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) drew rousing applause when he said that the complex is "unparalleled in Prince George's County. . . . Nobody in America has a facility like this one." Spectators in the crowd of 3,000 shouted out, "Amen."

Built on 80 acres adjoining the stadium, the facility has two swimming pools, a 40,000-square-foot gymnastics center and a 20,000-square-foot fitness center. There's a 75,000-square-foot field house that includes a 200-meter track, volleyball and basketball courts and seating for 3,000 spectators. There's also a Learning Center, for classes in computers, storytelling and designing T-shirts, among others.

For county leaders, the airy building with all its accoutrements adds up to bragging points that they can tout when they sell Prince George's as a place that's attractive for businesses and families.

"It continues the whole thing that Prince George's is not the ugly sister to other counties," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat who represents most of Prince George's in the U.S. House of Representatives. "It says that Prince George's has its own unique facilities."

Yet the facility, which its managers are calling the Sportsplex, also has the distinction of being the most costly--both in terms of its construction and operation--of any the county has ever built. It is also the only one in the county that is being operated by an outside management firm rather than by county employees.

And although county officials and local sports enthusiasts point to all the potential the Sportsplex has--with big events and lots of high-end sports equipment for members--the facility has been the focus of controversy.

More than a year behind schedule, the facility's opening came a month after the county and its general contractor, Gilbane Building Co., of Providence, R.I., settled a lawsuit over which side had violated their agreement and was responsible for delays and who should pay how much. Gilbane sought $1.7 million, the county $505,000.

In the end, both sides dropped their claims; Gilbane agreed to finish 50 items by March 13 or face a $30,000 penalty. The company did not finish all the work on time and the penalty has been assessed.

The settlement had been opposed privately by Richard A. Romine, general counsel for the county park and planning board. On March 10, he was told that his $105,000-a-year contract wasn't being renewed and that that day would be his last. Romine, who also had resisted changes sought by Gilbane, said he was given no reason for his termination.

Elizabeth M. Hewlett, chairman of the Prince George's park and planning board, said the contract dispute "had nothing to do with his contract not being renewed. We thought it was time to move on, and we did." She declined to elaborate.

Meanwhile, public enthusiasm for the Sportsplex's opening has been tempered somewhat by a fee schedule that some contend is too costly--even with discounts--for many of the area's residents who had thought that access to the facility would be a trade-off for their being forced to live across from FedEx Field.

"Why didn't they put it in a neighborhood where people can afford it?" asked Edward Baines, a Holocaust Museum maintenance worker who lives across from the Sportsplex on Sheriff Road. "We aren't making $70,000 or $80,000 a year in this community. Most of these people are making $20,000 or $30,000. Let's be real. They put it here not for us, but because it's the neighborhood where they could drop it in."

Many residents who were against the stadium, completed in 1996 on what had been the last dairy farm inside the Capital Beltway, softened their opposition as grandiose plans emerged for the Sportsplex aimed at the community. "This is a consolation prize for a lot of people who were unceremoniously dumped on," said County Council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville).

Wynn said that the Sportsplex's fees should be affordable for area residents. "It shouldn't be any higher than any [recreation] center in any low-income community," he said. "In my opinion, it should be lower. There should be a clear benefit to the people who are in the impact area."

Hewlett said: "I can't say it's not going to pinch a little bit. . . . If it turns out it really was unreasonable or there's something better we can do, we'll continue to look at it and reevaluate it more."

Funding for the Sportsplex began with a $3 million contribution from late Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke in response to community concerns about the football stadium's impact. Initial plans called for a $12 million sports and learning complex, with later additions.

However, a task force of community leaders and politicians insisted that more be built sooner, and the price escalated to the $31 million spent so far. An additional $8 million will be spent in the next 18 months to add more classrooms and for other features such as outdoor bleachers and lighting.

Most of the total price tag of $39.2 million is being paid with public funds.

The largest portion--$28.7 million--comes from revenue bonds sold by the Prince George's Park and Planning Commission on which county property owners will pay the debt service--$2.5 million in interest payments in the first three years alone. An additional $3 million comes from a state bond sale, whose interest payments are levied through taxes on all Maryland residents.

Still another $4.1 million comes from the sale of the county-owned land to the Redskins for the stadium; the county and state previously paid $6.2 million to acquire the tract. Finally, $391,000 comes from the agency's operating budget.

The complex also will be costly to operate, with 26 full-time staff members and 200 to 300 seasonal employees. Its first-year budget is $4.7 million, of which $3.1 million is projected to come from membership fees, rentals and concessions, and $1.6 million from park and planning. If revenue falls short, the public, through park and planning agency, will pay the difference.

"It's very expensive to operate," Hewlett said. "The goal of the facility is to serve everyone in Prince George's County. At the same time, we have to balance that against the cost to build and run and operate it."

County recreation officials stressed that many events at the Sportsplex will be less costly than full membership in the facility. These will require an ID card ($15 for individuals and $25 for families, per year) plus nominal charges, such as $1 to use the pool at certain times. With an ID card, many classes and lectures will be free.

The charge for Sportsplex ID cards will be waived for county residents through Dec. 31. However, to get an ID card, residents will have to provide information such as their Social Security number, the name of their employer, names and ages of family members and phone numbers.

These will be "stored electronically so enrolling in a class or program will become a quick paperless transaction," according to agency documents.

Even with price cuts for residents living within two miles of the Sportsplex, a family would pay $864 a year for a full membership, and those living outside the "impact area"--but in Prince George's or Montgomery--would pay $1,152.

The impact area is bounded roughly by Central Avenue on the south, Route 50 on the north, the District line on the west, and the Capital Beltway and Landover Road on the east.

Additional reductions are available for people on welfare and to families of up to four with annual household incomes up to $21,000 or of five or more with household incomes no larger than $35,000.

But the fee schedule has its defenders.

"It's a good first shot at it," said council member Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden), who helped negotiate the Sportsplex. "We'll do this for a four-month trial period, then we may have to refine it. Some families might still think it's too high. Some people thought it was going to be a reward for the stadium. But this was never going to be free. And it's not a rec center."

Curry said: "I think that a very sensitive fee schedule has been arranged to accommodate everyone."

The Sportsplex operating budget--the largest of any park and planning facility--covers utilities, maintenance, personnel, equipment and a $240,000 management fee paid to Centers LLC, the only firm to bid on the management contract.

"We've never had the experience of managing a facility this size," said Gene Giddens, deputy director of facility operations for park and planning. "Their hiring procedures are a lot faster than ours."

The seven-year agreement with Centers, which also manages the Ray Meyer Fitness Center at DePaul University in Chicago, allows for an annual cost-of-living increase, up to 5 percent, after two years.

Corporate sponsorship is another ingredient in the Sportsplex financial mix. The corporate marketing contract is held by the Washington firm of Paul Brailsford and Chris Dunlavey, who are also partners in Centers. So far, they have secured one major sponsorship, from Coca-Cola, which has paid for two scoreboards worth $275,000. In return, the Sportsplex vending machines dispense only Coca-Cola products, with a percentage of the profits going to the county agency.

Even with questions about fees, the crowd at Saturday's opening was boisterous, standing and cheering as a long list of speakers touted the Sportsplex as a new jewel in the county's crown.

Simultaneously, an East Coast swim meet, sponsored by the Jantzen sportswear firm and broadcast by ESPN, was underway inside.

There were barbecue and basketball outside, while clowns, mimes and a man who specialized in card tricks entertained inside on the main floor.

There was boxer Evander Holyfield, helping with the celebration and meeting with young fans.

Children played video games. Washington Redskins cheerleaders signed autographs. Families walked around with balloons, cotton candy and bags of popcorn.

In one gym, several gymnasts demonstrated their abilities on the parallel bars, balance beam and pommel horse. Next door, a karate instructor led a demonstration class.

Inside one of the aquatic centers, an audience watched synchronized swimming demonstrations. In the fitness center, trainers answered people's questions about membership fees and equipment.

On Sunday, the facility was free to everyone, and the large recreational pool was full of romping children wading around a fake dinosaur, running under water fountains, careening down a large water slide.

On Monday, 2,000 people came for the annual job fair sponsored by Wynn, and Hewlett held a news conference to boost the U.S. Census.

Bob Keil, chief executive of the Sportsplex, was walking around with a cell phone to his ear. "There are 200 exhibitors on the floor of the field house providing all kinds of job opportunities for the community," he reported. "There were school buses full of people. We're now parking cars in the Redskins lot. Our parking lot has been full for hours and hours."

Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.

Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex At a Glance

Field House:

75,000 square feet, with 200-meter indoor track, volleyball and basketball courts and 3,000 seats for spectators.

Fitness Center:

20,000 square feet, with a suspended jogging track, studio and free weight space and a cardiovascular training area.

Gymnastics Center:

40,000 square feet, with a 25,000-square-foot gymnastics floor, a wooden aerobics dance floor and seating for 1,000 spectators.

Aquatic Center:

50,000 square feet, with a 50-meter competition pool, a leisure pool with splash features and water slides, classrooms and seating for 1,500.

Outdoor Track and Sports Field:

A lighted 400-meter track, with eight running lanes and one jogging lane, a field event area, a concession area and permanent seating for 5,500. A lighted, irrigated football/soccer field is within the track oval.

Festival Field:

A three-acre grass area adjacent to the track, which can serve as a special event venue or staging area.

Support Areas:

Food and beverage concessions, a retail area and pro shop, meeting and coaching areas, training rooms, a press box and hospitality and reception areas.

Learning Center:

Classrooms offer space for educational forums, job skills enhancement and personal enrichment, including Internet access. It is open to community groups, schools, libraries and colleges for programs and classes.

Source: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. For more information about the Sportsplex, call 301-583-2400; TTY 301-583-2483.

Fitness Center Fees

Prince George's County Recreation Centers

General community use: $20/year for adult; $10/year for child.

With use of weight room: $75/year for adult; $65/year for child.

* Sports & Learning Complex Fitness Center Monthly Rates

Category

NBC

BC

IA

Young Adult

$35

$29

$21

Adult

$52

$43

$32

Adult Couple

$86

$72

$54

Senior

$46

$38

$28

Senior Couple

$69

$58

$43

Single Adult Family

$69

$58

$43

Family

$103

$86

$64

* Aquatic Center Monthly Rate

Young Adult

$17

$14

$10

Adult

$20

$17

$12

Adult Couple

$37

$31

$23

Senior

$18

$15

$11

Senior Couple

$29

$24

$18

Single Adult Family

$30

$25

$18

Family

$41

$34

$25

* Fitness Center/Aquatic Center Combo Monthly Rates

Young Adult

$38

$32

$24

Adult

$60

$50

$37

Adult Couple

$102

$85

$63

Senior

$49

$41

$30

Senior Couple

$80

$67

$50

Single Adult Family

$78

$65

$48

Family

$115

$96

$72

NBC: Non Bi-county Residents

BC: Bi-county Residents (Prince George's and Montgomery counties only)

IA: Impact Area (See program desk for details)

Fairland Indoor Aquatic Center/Athletic Complex

(Prince George's County)

Individual Plan $60/month; Family Plan $475/year. Price includes combination fitness and swimming. Limited hours. Noon to 4 p.m. daily then opens from 8 to 10 p.m.

Bethesda YMCA

Initiation Fee (Montgomery County) $135; Individual Plan $45/month; Family Plan $61/month. Includes: 3 pools, sauna, free weights, aerobics (fee), massage (fee).

YMCA-Downtown

Rhode Island Avenue NW - Basic Rate Plan - Initiation Fee $100 (waived for May); Individual Plan $77/month; Family Plan $115/month.

Athletic Rate Plan - Individual Plan $113.25/month; Family Plan $170.25/month.

Includes free weights, pool, sauna, aerobics, pool. Athletic plan includes six floors of equipment, racquetball, pool, lockers.

-- Mary Keane