SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Stadium Stakes : Inglewood takes a gamble by trying to lure the Raiders to town and build a sports paradise. But some major wild cards are lurking.

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Looking southeast from his ninth-floor corner office, Inglewood City Manager Paul D. Eckles can spot his field of dreams--a sprawling, desolate parking lot near the corner of Prairie Avenue and 90th Street.

It doesn't look like much, particularly from a mile away on a foggy winter afternoon. But if Eckles, Hollywood Park and the Los Angeles Raiders can iron out an agreement in the next few weeks, this unimpressive site will, by the fall of 1997, turn Inglewood into a sports fan's paradise rivaling East Rutherford, N.J. There, the Meadowlands sports complex houses four major sports franchises, including the New York Giants and Jets football teams.

For several months, Inglewood officials have been involved in negotiations to move home games for the Raiders football team from the quake-repaired Coliseum near USC to a proposed $150-million-plus stadium in Hollywood Park, the gigantic horse racing and casino complex. The new stadium, which might also host UCLA football games and even Super Bowls, would be across the street from the Forum, already home to the Lakers basketball and Kings hockey teams.

Serious obstacles remain before any deal could be signed, according to sources close to the talks. Last week, Hollywood Park Chief Executive Officer R.D. Hubbard said the stadium would not be built without a commitment from the National Football League to schedule at least three Super Bowls there. And Raiders owner Al Davis has made no promises to move the team to Hollywood Park.

Yet Eckles remains optimistic. And he firmly believes the 65,000-seat stadium--whose construction would likely be financed through a mix of private and public funds--could score a big touchdown for this ethnically mixed, working-class city of 110,000 people.

Officials say the new facility would annually generate millions of dollars in revenue for Inglewood and also might boost sagging racetrack and Lakers attendance by attracting more sports fans. It might even give residents weary of crime and recession something to cheer about.

"The people in the city of Inglewood take pride in the fact that the Lakers and Kings play here now, and I think they would take pride (if) we brought the Raiders in," Eckles said.

Inglewood's share of the construction cost of the proposed stadium is still unclear. Hollywood Park executives announced in January that they have secured some preliminary financing from NationsBank, the North Carolina-based institution that serves the NFL. Eckles said the city has considered contributing an as-yet-undetermined share through the sale of municipal bonds and other sources.

Civic pride notwithstanding, staking the city's money and reputation on a stadium deal could prove to be a risky bet.

Many experts say that new football stadiums are often money-losing propositions, especially for cities that agree to put up part of the financing. Negotiations for the Inglewood deal may ultimately depend on the sticky issue of stadium revenues--such as parking and food sales--which teams increasingly want to keep for themselves.

With these concerns in mind, a small but vocal group of local activists is vehemently protesting the proposed football arena as a pie-in-the-sky investment from misguided city officials.

The deal is even more complicated because it involves the Raiders, a franchise that has been criticized in the past for its aggressive business tactics as well as its unpredictability.

Over the past decade, Davis, perennially threatening to move the team out of the antiquated Coliseum, has won extravagant concessions from California cities desperate for the cachet of pro sports. As the various deals collapsed, cities such as Oakland and Sacramento have emerged emotionally--and sometimes financially--drained while Davis strengthened his bargaining position with the Coliseum Commission. In the deal that attracted the most attention, in 1987 the San Gabriel Valley town of Irwindale gave Davis $10 million to announce that he would move the team there. The franchise kept the money after stadium financing fell through.

Raiders officials declined to comment for this story. But sources involved in the Inglewood talks said Davis is dissatisfied with the $100 million in Coliseum repairs since the Northridge earthquake and has made Hollywood Park his top option.

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The team's stormy past is ancient history to many Inglewood sports fans, who are already burning with Raiders fever. Keeping the franchise in the Los Angeles area is crucial now that the Rams football team has left Anaheim for St. Louis, they say.

"If I were any happier, my face would crack from smiling," enthused Stephen Due, the manager of the Sports Section, a Manchester Boulevard store that sells officially licensed team jerseys, helmets and other paraphernalia. Calling the Coliseum "a dump," Due said that "the people in L.A. deserve a nice, clean, well-manufactured stadium."

Of course, Due would expect a new stadium to make his cash register happy as well. "On Saturdays and Sundays, we'd probably close the parking lot and fill it with merchandise," he said. "But, then, every street corner in Inglewood would have people selling Raiders stuff."

Business leaders reason that anything that helps the local economy must be good. The South Bay is still reeling from aerospace industry layoffs, most recently at Northrop Grumman Corp. in nearby Hawthorne. A new stadium would almost certainly drum up business for hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Bill Jones, director of sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn at La Cienega Avenue and Century Boulevard, said he would welcome a new stadium even though he's unsure how much his hotel would benefit. Occupancy has lately been running at 70% or so, well below his goal of the mid- to upper-70s.

"Nobody's doing well, or at least nobody's booming," Jones said of area hoteliers. "Anything that would generate demand would be welcome."

Although the stadium deal is far from a sure thing, sources say, Inglewood enjoys several advantages over other communities that have vied for such a facility.

"Inglewood has a great location," said Dan Barrett, a sports and entertainment consultant in the Century City office of Deloitte & Touche, which is advising the city on the stadium project. "It's centrally located on the Westside, with excellent highway access on the 405 and 105."

As host to the Lakers and Kings franchises, Barrett added, the city has already developed a reputation as a sports-friendly town. Traffic signals at busy intersections, for instance, are timed to minimize jams on game days. "People may think this is a minor thing, but not every large city is willing to do something like this," he said.

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Inglewood also would go to great lengths to help finance the deal. Besides selling its own bonds, financial analysts indicate, the city could help out with stadium financing by guaranteeing corporate bonds sold by Hollywood Park, which is owned and operated as a publicly held company. That option would cost the city nothing, as long as Hollywood Park made good on the bonds. But the company has seen its share price tumble in recent months because of cost overruns at the Card Club casino.

"It's very clear from any financial model that Hollywood Park can't finance a deal by itself," Eckles said. "It needs a partnership with the city of Inglewood to make it happen. But we're not going to throw a bunch of money at this to serve our own egos. . . . We're not going to raise taxes."

Although city officials are reluctant to hike utility or sales taxes, Inglewood could stand to gain plenty from admissions taxes and other stadium-related income--even if the stadium itself is unprofitable. And officials say that some of that money might be used to help Hollywood Park issue a corporate bond. The Forum, Eckles notes, pays the city $1 million a year in admissions taxes alone.

A new stadium could also help draw gamblers to Hollywood Park, which has seen its attendance decrease up to 25% in the past five years as the number of off-track betting sites has grown, said G. Michael Finnigan, chief financial officer for Hollywood Park.

But some community activists are skeptical about whether playing host to the Raiders would substantially help the city's economy.

Nzinga Owolo, a longtime activist who is running for Inglewood city clerk in the April municipal elections, said she opposes the stadium because she fears that officials might dip into money earmarked for redevelopment projects and thinks that the promised economic boon is greatly exaggerated.

"We can't afford to give our redevelopment money to ballclubs," Owolo said. "It's ridiculous."

Experts generally agree that football stadiums often lose money because they see far less action than baseball fields or basketball arenas. A major league baseball team hosts 81 regular season games per year and a basketball team 41, but a football team has only eight regular-season home games. Adding UCLA to the mix at the new stadium would undoubtedly help, but some still wonder whether it would be enough to break even.

Paul J. Much, an investment banker in the Chicago office of Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin, said that NFL teams by themselves simply don't use stadiums enough to make the facilities profitable.

Much added that NFL officials might be uncomfortable with a close business relationship between an NFL stadium and a large casino just a card's toss away.

"I've never seen gaming and horse racing combined with professional sports teams in this way," he said. "It raises concerns about betting. . . . The league knows (wagering on sports games) goes on, but they probably don't want to be affiliated with it that closely."

But NFL spokesman Greg Aiello dismissed such concerns. "Giants Stadium has a racetrack right next door," Aiello said. "Our principal concern with gambling has to do with betting on the point spread of our games, not with gambling on horse racing."

Inglewood and Hollywood Park officials have said that a deal must be hammered out by the end of this month for the stadium to open by 1997, which is the Raiders' desired move-in date. But Aiello said that as far as the NFL is concerned, there really is no timetable and talks are continuing.

"We will continue to work with the Raiders (and) support their efforts to find a state-of-the-art facility in the Los Angeles area," Aiello said.

Even if the NFL comes through with Super Bowl commitments, Hollywood Park must still contend with Davis. The Raiders owner has been known to stall deals until the last minute, always pressing for better terms. But Hollywood Park officials say that is not the case this time.

"The Raiders have been absolutely straightforward in our dealings with them," said Finnigan, the Hollywood Park executive. "We don't feel as if there's anything at risk here. There's no upfront money or anything like that."

Even the normally reticent Eckles, who is typically guarded about public pronouncements, is clearly excited by the prospect of a stadium deal.

He sees the Forum-Hollywood Park complex as "the preeminent sports and entertainment venue in the whole country." Though this kind of civic pride may mean little to Al Davis and other owners of the NFL, it's important enough to make Inglewood officials push hard for a new stadium deal.

"That's what we're here for," Eckles said. "To make people proud."

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The Peripatetic Raiders

Over the past decade, Raiders owner Al Davis has wrung concessions from California cities desperate for a pro sports team. As the deals collapsed, the dreams of cities from Oakland to Irwindale have been dashed while Davis strengthened his bargaining position with the Coliseum Commission. Here are some key events in the history of the football franchise.

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