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Ram Suitors' Race Hits Homestretch : Football: Zoning decision a lift for Baltimore. St. Louis upbeat after meeting.

October 13, 1994|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — St. Louis officials spent 4 1/2 hours with Ram President John Shaw Wednesday, attempting to woo the executive with a lucrative relocation offer that would make the Rams one of the NFL's most profitable franchises.

Meanwhile, Baltimore's bid for the Rams received a shot in the arm when a zoning officer from Anne Arundel (Md.) County rejected Washington Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke's application to build a 78,600-seat stadium in Laurel, about 20 miles south of Baltimore.

The two cities, which failed to land an NFL expansion team last year, are in a fierce battle with Orange County in the race for the Rams, which appears to be hitting the homestretch.

Thomas Eagleton, former U.S. senator who headed the four-man St. Louis delegation to Los Angeles, said he expects the Rams to make a decision in mid- to late-November. The city, which lost the Cardinals to Phoenix after the 1987 season, hopes to attract the team with a new $258-million, 70,000-seat domed stadium and a variety of financial enticements that could push annual revenues above $20 million a year. The Rams are projecting a $6 million loss this year.

Eagleton said Wednesday's discussion focused primarily on the big-ticket items of a wish list the Rams sent the city in August. St. Louis responded with a 25-page proposal outlining a plan to raise at least $60 million, through a permanent-seat licensing program, to cover costs associated with a move.

The St. Louis group rushed out of the Century City office building immediately after the meeting to catch a flight home, but in a later phone interview, Eagleton said the Rams seemed "more and more interested" in their offer.

"They asked very intelligent questions--they knew how to read the proposal," Eagleton said. "Sometimes they had inquiries about what was behind the proposal, but that's understandable because they're the ones who promulgated the wish list. Our proposal responded directly to the wish list."

Shaw declined comment on the meeting, other than to say, "They made an offer to us, and we hope to review it and get back to them."

St. Louis, which has promised the Rams virtually all revenues from the publicly funded stadium, is attempting to raise enough to cover some $30 million the Rams still owe for Anaheim Stadium improvements made in 1980, about $15 million for a new practice facility and an estimated $15 million in NFL relocation fees.

In addition, it is believed the city has offered to spend another $6 million to expedite construction of the stadium so it can be ready for the beginning of the 1995 season. It has been scheduled to be completed in late October, 1995.

The city also has retained Charlotte, N.C.-based Muhleman Marketing, Inc., which helped that expansion city raise $142 million in stadium construction funds through a seat-licensing program, in which fans paid a one-time fee, ranging from $600 to $5,400, for the right to purchase season tickets.

Newport Beach sports agent Leigh Steinberg, co-chairman of the Orange County Save the Rams Task Force, was skeptical about the seat-licensing plan.

"That totally screens out any but the wealthiest fans," he said. "It's fine to have that as part of a stadium, but to have that as the majority (of your fund-raising efforts)? I don't know."

Eagleton wouldn't discuss specifics of the plan or whether St. Louis has made any luxury box or season-ticket sale guarantees, but he said recently that 86 of the stadium's 100 luxury suites have been leased.

"We answered various questions about stadium size, the shape it's in, could it be completed by the open of the season, and how many other luxury boxes could be put on top," Eagleton said. "We have some additional space at the top of the stadium, and they asked what it could be used for.

"We talked about the seat-licensing plan, and they inquired as to how we were going to do it."

Eagleton said this week that St. Louis is "neck and neck" with Anaheim and had a "lead over Baltimore," but Wednesday's developments in Maryland could make it a tighter race.

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has maintained that Cooke has been blocking efforts by Peter Angelos, the Baltimore Orioles' owner, to bring the Rams to Baltimore. And Schaefer expressed concern that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is supporting St. Louis over Baltimore as the Rams search for a home.

But Wednesday's denial of several zoning exceptions Cooke needs to build a stadium in Laurel dealt a serious setback to the owner's hopes of controlling both the Washington and Baltimore markets.

"I think it's a welcome and positive development," Angelos said. "I think it's a very significant setback for Cooke. It clears the air and eliminates the Redskins' contention that this area can't support two teams."

The Redskins quickly filed an appeal, and Cooke said he intends to "vigorously pursue our object of building the (stadium)." But Robert Wilcox, the hearing officer in the case, said the major problem with the Laurel site is parking--the Redskins proposed building 20,077 spaces, but at least 24,100 spaces must be provided under county law for a stadium that size.

"This was not a close case," Wilcox said. "Simply stated, the property is too small for the proposed use."

Heidi Sinclair of the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm of Los Angeles, which has been hired by Shaw to handle questions regarding a possible move, said the Rams will be watching the situation in Maryland very closely.

"Certainly, (the Redskins staying in Washington) would take some of the risk out of a move to Baltimore," Sinclair said. "It makes that market more attractive. There would be less competition for fans dollars."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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