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Stadium Rival Irks Leiweke

Pro football: With Coliseum officials set to announce $1-million campaign, he says AEG may step aside.

June 07, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With Coliseum officials voting to spend up to $1 million to promote their venue as an NFL site, the leader of a group trying to bring a stadium to downtown Los Angeles said Thursday he refuses to be drawn into a bidding war and threatened to step aside.

Members of the Coliseum Commission, locked in what they see as a fight for their venue's survival, held a meeting Wednesday during which they agreed to set aside the money to pay for the architectural, legal and financial research needed to court an NFL team.

"This is an investment in our future," said Coliseum General Manager Pat Lynch, who will hold a news conference today to announce the expenditure. "We still believe and always will believe, that we are the most viable site."

The vote marked the latest complication for a plan to build a privately financed football stadium adjacent to Staples Center that would house a relocated team, possibly the San Diego Chargers. The leader of that plan said late Thursday he remains skeptical about the viability of the Coliseum as an option, but stressed he was uninterested in a fractious fight.

"The only way we can get the NFL back here is to speak with a united voice," said Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group. "If somebody has a better vision, we'll get out."

The Coliseum news came a day after AEG received a letter from the City of San Diego reminding Leiweke that the Chargers have a Qualcomm Stadium lease, and hinting at legal action if the group tries to lure the team to Los Angeles.

Last month, the county Board of Supervisors voted to sue the city, arguing that a redevelopment plan that would ease the way for stadium construction ultimately strips tax revenue from the county. Although county leaders have expressed support for bringing a pro team to the Coliseum, they insist the legal action is not aimed at derailing the downtown stadium proposal.

Leiweke said Thursday that the group will continue to pursue a stadium in South Park but the recent setbacks have been disappointing.

"Have we lost our gut, our vision, our enthusiasm? No," he added. "But we are a little surprised that we have lawsuits being filed, committees being formed, other sites being offered, and that is an invitation for Los Angeles to be absolutely played. That makes a very difficult process almost impossible. We went through that last time. If I'm not mistaken, it's called the Houston Texans."

Leiweke was referring to the complications that mired the last efforts to bring a team to Los Angeles in 1999. Houston billionaire Bob McNair offered $700 million for the league's 32nd franchise, outbidding competing Los Angeles groups.

Many people, including high-ranking NFL executives, have ruled out the Coliseum as an option. Those critics cite, among other things, insufficient parking, and the prohibitive cost and red tape involved with remodeling a historic landmark.

Some at the NFL have also dismissed the Coliseum's funding plan as overly optimistic and impractical. By contrast, the group backing the downtown proposal is made up of billionaires, including Denver-based Philip Anschutz, who owns Staples Center. Coliseum backers say they understand the shortcomings of their stadium proposal but don't see them as insurmountable.

"I do not believe for a host of reasons that anybody will be able to build a stadium better, quicker and more cost effectively than the Coliseum," said Los Angeles City councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, also a member of the Coliseum Commission.

Lynch took issue with Leiweke's comments that public funds would be used to research the viability of the Coliseum. The studies would augment those done in the late 1990s, when Los Angeles was vying for an expansion team.

"They aren't tax dollars," Lynch said. "We are spending money we have accumulated with our earnings."

Coliseum backers insist they are determined to look deeper into the issue, pointing to the fact that all eight Coliseum Commission members in attendance voted in favor of allocating those funds.

"Obviously, the Coliseum Commission doesn't allocate $1 million willy-nilly to projects," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Coliseum Commission. "This is a serious step."

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