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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.

March 02, 1995|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

*

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."

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