Stadium Struggle in Baltimore: Push and Pull of Power

The Washington Post

This is a story about a city and a stadium and about the accompanying politics and pressures.

It's a story of commissions and study groups, some of Baltimore's most powerful people and inner-city politics. Finally, it's a story about a city that is, in a sense, held hostage.

When the Colts fled in the middle of a winter night three years ago, they left an immeasurable scar on a proud city's psyche. The movie "Diner" has a scene in which a man insists his fiancee pass a Colts trivia test before they can be married. For 25 years, the Baltimore Colts held such a position of importance here that things of this sort are barely exaggerated.

"You couldn't live here and not see people wearing (figurative) black arm bands after the Colts left," said Herb Belgrad, a lawyer who heads the Maryland Stadium Authority, a group that recently recommended construction of a two-stadium complex in downtown Baltimore.

City officials and business leaders had been talking about building a new stadium since 1972, but when the Colts left town, the talk became serious. Many city leaders wanted to act quickly, especially since there already was a fear that the Orioles would leave, too.

Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams purchased the Orioles in 1979 and, although he said he intended to stay, he refused to sign a long-term lease for Memorial Stadium.

So in 1984, Baltimore civic leaders had two goals: to lure an NFL expansion franchise and to make Williams and the Orioles happy. Not since the trendy Inner Harbor development has Baltimore attempted a project of such magnitude.

"I think he (Williams) is going to get everything he could possibly want in terms of facilities," Belgrad said. "It will be a state-of-the-art facility in terms of sight lines, seat configuration and construction in an area with the greatest potential for ticket sales."

Belgrad and others hope that construction can begin in 1988 and that, on some evening in 1991, the National Football League will have returned to Baltimore and the Orioles, locked into a 30-year lease, will play their first game in the new facility.

They see a complex with a horseshoe-shaped baseball stadium facing toward the lights of the Inner Harbor. They see a facility that will be "the crown jewel" in the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore.

This also is a story about the incredible power wielded by the men who control professional sports franchises.

In formulating its report, the stadium authority spoke directly or indirectly to the commissioners of major league baseball and to the NFL; to at least one former commissioner; to officials with dozens of pro franchises, including the Orioles, and to various architects and stadium officials.

They wanted to be precise because the Maryland state legislature will have until April to approve Camden Yards as a site and the sale of bonds for construction of the complex. In the interviews, the stadium authority tried to determine exactly what each sport wanted in a facility.

They found each wanted everything -- including a stadium just for that sport.

And they already knew each had leverage. The NFL won't return to Baltimore until there's a commitment to build a new stadium. The Orioles won't publicly threaten a move, but the threat is there, nonetheless. Their latest Memorial Stadium lease is up after the 1987 season, and a half-dozen other cities would love to have the team, including Williams' hometown of Washington.

Officials may argue how many dollars a sports franchise means to an economy, but, as Belgrad said, "You can't measure all their value in terms of dollars. The prestige factor is immeasurable."

What the Orioles want, then, is simple: the best facility in their sport.

They have told the stadium authority they must have an open-air stadium with a natural grass field and that, yes, something like Royals Stadium in Kansas City would be nice. And, oh yes, one other thing: they want a stadium built solely to accommodate the needs of a baseball team and its fans.

A couple of architects have said they could accommodate both football and baseball in one facility, but both the Orioles and the NFL appear skeptical. So, too, is the authority.

According to very preliminary estimates, a dual-purpose stadium can be built for $85 million and two stadiums for $100 million. No final design has been agreed upon, but the preliminary baseball model is similar to one now planned for downtown San Francisco. Ironically, the design for the football stadium is similar to the Indianapolis Colts' Hoosier Dome -- without the dome.

Even if the authority decides a two-stadium complex is financially realistic, no construction will begin until Williams and the Orioles sign a long-term lease. Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said he will sign a long-term lease. Several sources near the Orioles also say he will sign. Others wonder.

"He has never signed a long-term lease on anything in his life," said a prominent Baltimore attorney who has done business with Williams. "It costs him leverage, and he likes leverage."

Belgrad has heard some of the same things, but said, "We're demonstrating that we're dealing in the utmost good faith. We're planning the Orioles a permanent home, and we'll make a lucrative franchise even more lucrative. But we want to put an end to the unknowns."

Among the selling points: that the stadium will be located a few blocks from one of the hottest tourist areas in the country, the Inner Harbor. In addition to Harborplace, the Science Center, a Six Flags indoor park called the Power Plant and the National Aquarium, two more projects are about to begin -- an IMAC movie theatre and an amusement park with an Opryland theme.

Also, sources say there are preliminary plans for high-speed commuter train service between Baltimore's Camden Yards and Washington's Union Station.

The city's point is that Williams can't leave Baltimore because no one else has as much to offer.

Belgrad's group has hired an attorney to work out a lease. Sources indicate the authority would be willing to let the Orioles share parking and concession revenues if Williams will invest in the stadium. There's little to indicate that would be a problem, but deciding how much he invests and what percentage of parking and concessions he gets could be argued for months.

Williams' power is no greater than that of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who likewise has told the commission his league doesn't enjoy sharing facilities with another sport.

In fact, until a few weeks ago, the stadium authority was working on a completely different plan -- to build the Orioles a stadium in Camden Yards and to refurbish Memorial Stadium for the NFL.

Belgrad said it would cost about $70 million to enclose Memorial Stadium, add sky boxes and parking and improve the locker-room facilities.

"It would have been a nice place, but for 10-20-30 years down the road still the wrong location," he said.

The other factor is that the NFL didn't want to return to Memorial Stadium, and the competition for expansion applicants is too great to take chances.

Now, the plan is to build a baseball stadium immediately and a football facility as soon as the NFL awards Baltimore an expansion franchise. One man who disagrees is Lou Grasmick, chairman of the parks and recreation department's special events committee.

"Build both now," he said. "We can't get the NFL with a promise. We have to take a bold step to put us in front of the other cities."

Until that night when the moving vans carted the Colts away to Indianapolis, a lot of important people here figured a new stadium would be a waste of money. Chief among them apparently was Schaefer.

Even for months after that, whenever Schaefer was asked about a new stadium, he would talk about what a terrific place Memorial Stadium was.

The Orioles did not.

Although the team never spoke directly of moving, it did talk about one day not being able to make ends meet. The Orioles had reached their saturation point in season tickets, selling almost all of the 10,000 or so good seats and holding a waiting list of people who didn't like what was left.

"We've had so many people tell us, 'Call when you have some of the good seats open up,' " General Manager Hank Peters said.

The Orioles point to Kansas City's Royals Stadium, where the seats are close to the action and sight lines are clear. The Royals easily can sell 25,000 good seats at premium prices, most of them prior to the season.

The Orioles also point out that many other major league teams make significant revenues off luxury sky boxes, which Memorial Stadium doesn't have.

The Orioles admit to making money in the 1980s, but they wonder about the '90s and beyond, when television revenues are supposed to begin a gradual decline.

In the end, the departure of the Colts was the best thing that ever happened to the Orioles. Suddenly, they had all the leverage.

Gov. Harry Hughes, instead of pushing for fast construction, named another commission to study the impact of sports on the state of Maryland. Schaefer laughed and said he could save the group a lot of time and money.

"Sports are important," he said.

After a six-month-long study, the Manekin Commission agreed and recommended the building of a stadium in Landsdowne, an area southwest of the city.

Schaefer fumed and said Camden Yards is where the stadium ought to be.

If he didn't exert his influence on the state legislature, it apparently was felt, anyway, because there was no action taken on the Manekin report. Instead, still another commission was named, this one Belgrad's, and it addressed only the stadium question.

Six weeks ago, it recommended a two-stadium complex be built in Camden Yards.

Still, not everyone agrees. At least one Baltimore city councilman has pushed for a renovation of Memorial Stadium, and some newspaper columnists have wondered about the priorities of a place that will build a new stadium at a time when it's being forced to close five branches of the library system.

Likewise, neighborhood groups from near Memorial Stadium want the stadium kept in operation, and those around Camden Yards don't want a stadium.

The downtown homeowners say they feel betrayed because, after they were pioneers in the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor area, they may now see their neighborhood hurt by a stadium.

"We're going to have lawsuits," Grasmick said. "You can't do anything these days without them. But we've got to get on with this. Listen, some of the same people who don't want the stadium are the ones who didn't want the Inner Harbor. The mayor prevailed then, and he'll prevail now. We're never going to get the NFL without building a new stadium. And we need a new stadium to keep the Orioles."

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