A traveling road show featuring some of Prince George's County's most prominent political figures has been roaming from town to town, like a local version of "The Music Man," spinning a tale of riches and glamor available to town officials through the wonders of cable television.
The politicians -- in one case a former county executive who began his career as a vaudeville-style, song-and-dance man and made millions selling half-smokes, and in the other a state delegate who until recently earned his living as the quintessential hardware store salesman -- are the representatives of two national cable television companies.
As salesmen for the competing Storer Communications Inc. and Cross Country Cable, the former executive, Winfield M. Kelly Jr., and the state delegate, Frank Komenda, command roadshows in scores of little towns that enthrall, flatter and sometimes bewilder officials with cocktail parties, $10,000 checks to evaluate proposals, offers of expense-paid trips to out-of-town television studios and demonstrations of complex technology.
The wooing is part of an intense battle between Storer, a huge Florida communications conglomerate, and Cross County, a small New Jersey-based partnership, to win municipal cable franchises in Prince George's, where 28 potentiial town cable systems that could reach about one-fourth of the county's residents are at stake.
After nearly 18 months, of head-to-head competition, Kelly's Storer is winning the battle for municipal calbe frachises, 12 to 2. Of even greater importance for the two companies is a competition this spring or summer among some 20 cable firms for two countywide franchises potentially worth $120 million or more.
Faced with such lucrative possibilities in the suburban Maryland county of some 675,000 residents, the two companies decided about a year ago to pursue the county frachises through the muncipalities. By carving out sections of the county franchise areas, they each hoped to make them less desirable to competitors. At the same time, they would accumulate town systems that, when taken together, could operate profitably.
Having thus set their business strategies, both companies went in search of well-known and politically influential persons to carry their message through the county. Storer immediately hired Kelly.
A hometown boy who parlayed a $500 loan into a multimillion-dollar lunch wagon business, Kelly in the last decade worked his way up through the county's tightly knit social and political circles to head the all-powerful Democratic Party organization. As such, he had about the best connectons of any figure in Prince George's, despite his defeat for reelection as county executive in 1978.
For Kelly, coming from the election defeat by Lawrence Hogan, Storer offered an opportunity to channel his political energies into lobbying for cable and, if all went according to plan, to make several million dollars off a 6 percent share of the local sibsidiary given him for free. Kelly believes he has adequately demonstrated the wisdom in Storer's selection of him. Said he immodestly: "I am personally responsible for interesting the municipalities in the cable industry."
In Komenda, Cross-Country hired a popular state legislator whose ties were concentrated in the southern half of Prince George's County, where he ran a hardware store for 20 years and was active in social and business circles. In the six years since he was elected to the legislature, Komenda had found it difficult to continue running the store and be politically active, so he was looking for a new business. When a friend approached him a little more than a year ago on behalf of Cross Country, he took the 2.5 percent share and $40,000 salary that was offered to run the local company.
In the midst of all this cable competition are the local officials, who in town hall after town hall have watched the road show and been dazzled by the promises of hugh profits flowing effortlessly into town bank accounts, first-run movies on home television sets and local sports teams starring on local programs.
So far, half of the county's 28 towns have decided to give their cable franchise to one of the two firms after only a few days of considering the proposals. The officials have done so despite warnings from the county government's cable commission and national cable experts that the complex technology unfolding before them needs to be studied carefully and extensively before a choice is made to ensure that the promises meet reality when the system is finally set up.
The success of Kelly and Komenda despite these warnings indicates just how effective has been the strategy both companies intended to pursue when the two were hired. Although both play on muncipal desire for instant riches -- town treasuries receive up to 5 percent of a cable system's revenues -- and longstanding county-town conflicts, they also admit their connections have made a difference.
For instance, Storer's 12 victories have come in the urbanized Rte. 1 corridor of Northern Price George's where most county municipalities are located and where Kelly grew up and now makes his home.
Although Komenda has competed with Kelly for each of those franchises, frequently with proposals that town officials concede are almost indistinguishable, Komenda feels he has been at a distinct disadvantage: "All these people [the northern mayors and council members] were complete strangers to me and southern Prince George's County [Komenda's home turf] might be the other side of the world when dealing with someone [Kelly] born and raised in their area."
Kelly admits that Storer's successes have in part been a product of his hometown familiarity. If, for instance, it had been Komenda who was chosen to represent Storer instead of Kelly, the tally on municipal franchise awards might be quite different. "Storer would have been successful [because it's one of the top cable companies] but the results would've been much different, much closer, not 12 to 2 [in favor of Storer as is the case]."
The best example of Kelly's advantage in northern Prince George's towns occurred late last year when Hyattsville, a town just across the District border that is dotted with Victorian homes and some 5,500 potential cable subscribers, decided to award a town cable franchise.
In November 1979, Kelly and Komenda found themselves before the Hyattsville Town Council, where Kelly's political and personal ties guaranteed him a warm reception. He has known a majority of the 11 members on the government body for years and counts at least five or six of them as some of his closest allies.
Among those who evaluated the Storer and Cross Country sale pitches were Charles Armentrout, a longtime political supporter of Kelly who works with the former executive in a real estate and development firm; Mary Prangley, a friend of almost two decades whbose son was Kelly's paperboy; Polly Rogers, a neighbor who lives down the block from Kelly, and Thomas Ponton, one of the former executive's closest friends.
Also there was Hyattsville Mayor Tom Bass, a young political activist who has been trying to rise within the ranks of Democratic officialdom and has become a close friend of the still-powerful Kelly. In the coming months the Hyattsville folks, Bass especially, would help Kelly by lobbying other mayors on behalf of Storer. During one Ocean City covention for municipal leaders, Bass went so far as to allow Storer to host a cocktail party in his poolside suite that had been paid for by city money.
Although Komenda was hoping that he could persuade the council to give the franchise to Cross-Country, both he and Kelly believed that Storer had the edge. "I recoginized that it was an uphill battle because I was playing on Winnie's court," Komenda said recently. "Winnie is far better known in north county. It's sort of the hometown boy thing -- your family is known, you're known, you have a constituency and a record and that provides a basis of trust."
Only seven days after both companies submitted their official proposals (highly technical 100-page documents that cable experts say can take weeks to analyze), and just a few weeks after the city adopted a cable ordinance bearing remarkable similarity to a sample given them weeks before by Storer, the council unanimously awarded its franchise to a jubilant Kelly.
Said Bass about the award to Storer: "The proposals were pretty much the same with some minor differences. For me it was basically the finances" of the hugh Storer conglomerate when compared to the small Cross Country firm that was the convincing factor for the council. But it was also a question of trust -- "I believe him [Kelly] when he tells me something," Bass said.
Trust and personal ties also played a significant part in the quick decision a few months later by Riverdale to go for Kelly and Storer. "A lot of people [on the council] knew his credibility. That was one thing going for him," said Patrick Prangley, the town administrator, who years ago tossed newspapers each morning onto the Kelly doorstep in Hyattsville. "I really admire him. He was raw manure, coming from nothing, to what he is today. He's really a shrewd businessman."
In mid-January the six-member council and mayor sent out letters inviting companies to bid for a town franchise. As usual, only Storer and Cross Country expressed any interest and responded within the three-week deadline for proposal applications.
Within two weeks after both companies made their presentations, the award was made to Kelly and Storer. Riverdale Mayor Guy Tiberio, a strong Kelly political supporter, said that the decision was based purely on Storer's strong financial position and not on personal or political ties.
Although the council's apparent haste in awarding the franchise was questioned by some, including Komenda, Tiberio said the time was adequate to make an intelligent decision. "Two weeks is a long time. We could've made it in one week," he said. "Sure [the proposals] were a couple hundred pages. But, geez, I read a couple hundred pages every day in proposals about pneumatic systems."
Similar episodes, including quick selections and a minimum of public notice of the issue, were repeated throughout most of the year, with Storer the eventual victor. In Bladensburg (where the mayor and several council members are Kelly family intimates), Mount Rainier and Berwyn Heights, Storer was given the franchise.
In College Park, Cross Country offered a 52-channel system with subscriber fees of $15.50 compared to Storer's offer of a 41-channel system with $16 fees. Still, Kelly won by a 6-to-1 vote with council members attacking Cross Country's proposal in College Park.
While Storer and Kelly racked up 12 victories in the north, Komenda was unable to win even one for Cross Country. But the direction of victory began to change toward Cross Country when the southern county municipalities began to look at cable. This time it was Komenda who benefited from long-cultivated social and political ties.
First, he won a franchise in Capital Heights, a tiny village of some 1,000 potential subscribers, only three weeks after it received the two companies' highly technical proposals.
Capitol Heights had never advertised that it had a franchise up for bids and only Cross Country and Storer applied. Mayor Leo Korami, who 20 years ago was on Komenda's milk delivery route and calls the state delegate a "wonderful guy," said a town government went for Cross-Country because they "gave a better presentation."
Said Kelly of his first municipal loss: "We made a presentation [months earlier] and said we would like to come back [when the town was actively considering a proposal]. The next thing I heard they had gone with Cross Country." He was equally bewildered when Morningside gave its franchise rights to Komenda and Cross Country less than two weeks ago. "We didn't know they were voting on it," he said.
Kelly was also unaware that Cross Country had recently escorted the Morningside officials, along with some 50 other south county mayors and council members to New Jersey for a day of dining and viewing Cross Country studios. The cable company paid $5,000 to cover the cost of the two New Jersey trips.
While southern Prince George's towns will continue to be the beneficiaries of most cable wooing in the next few months -- Forest Heights and District Heights are just two of the towns that are on the verge of awarding franchises -- both Kelly and Komenda will soon be winding up their road shows and turning their attention to the county.
There, they will compete with possibly 20 companies that so far have expressed an interest in one or both of the county franchises. They will also be vying for much higher stakes and with companies that also have many Prince George's notables on their boards. Along with Kelly and Komenda, the 11-member County Council will be evaluating companies represented by colleagues of current County Executive Hogan, former and current state legislators and law firms with political and personal ties to County Council members.