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Dodgers' Buyer Covering All the Bases

Some expect Frank McCourt to reveal real estate plans after getting the city on his team.

November 05, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan and Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writers

The way his closest associates explain things, Frank H. McCourt Jr.'s plans for the Los Angeles Dodgers are clear enough: He is determined, in the words of one, to put "the polish back on the Dodger brand." Plain and simple.

Yet some leaders in the L.A. business community refuse to believe that McCourt's agenda is about baseball and baseball only.

The fourth-generation Bostonian who struck a deal last month to buy the Dodgers from owner News Corp. for $430 million is, after all, a real estate developer. And that fact alone is enough to have the city establishment clucking over what McCourt's real motive for purchasing the team may be.

"There has to be some other, ancillary play," said Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso, whose projects include the Grove at Farmers Market.

Like others in town, Caruso finds it hard to imagine that someone would buy a team that is reportedly losing millions of dollars a year without a strategy for generating new sources of revenue, probably through the business he knows best.

With that in mind, Caruso figures that McCourt's endgame could be to build housing adjacent to Dodger Stadium atop the 300-acre parcel on Chavez Ravine. Others surmise that McCourt may move the Dodgers from their longtime home and into a new stadium that would be built downtown.

McCourt, under a gag order from Major League Baseball, has said little publicly.

But those familiar with the 49-year-old's track record say that, whatever his ultimate plans, he is bound to let them unfold slowly. That, they say, is because McCourt has learned from experience the importance of handling major undertakings in person and building community support before taking potentially controversial steps.

It's also because, unlike Microsoft Corp. billionaire Paul G. Allen and some other big-league sports owners, McCourt doesn't have money to burn. His core asset is an undeveloped, 25-acre parcel on the South Boston side of the Hub's storied waterfront -- a piece of property that Boston broker Gary Lemire of CB Richard Ellis/Whittier Partners values at $200 million. Others put the value higher.

McCourt held lots of meetings during a recent trip to Los Angeles, but some skeptics think he hasn't found the partners or secured the financing needed to complete his acquisition of the Dodgers. McCourt has countered by putting out word that he's fully capable of doing the deal on his own and has no worries about winning approval this month from other baseball team owners.

One well-wisher told McCourt that he began with at least one advantage: He isn't News Corp. Indeed, McCourt is playing up the theme that the Dodgers are returning to family ownership. His early embrace of longtime owner Peter O'Malley perhaps was meant to underline that idea.

At the same time, McCourt is sending another clear signal by moving to Los Angeles. McCourt and his wife and business partner, Jamie, are house-hunting and scouting schools for the younger two of their four sons, Casey, 17, and Gavin, 13.

McCourt, according to people close to him, plans to open a West Coast office of McCourt Co., his Boston-based development firm. To that end, he dispatched his older sons, Drew, 22, and Travis, 20, to the Southland over the summer to gather information on the regional economy.

With his three brothers and three sisters all living in the Northeast, McCourt will hardly sever ties to the area. Yet he has raised the prospect of finally giving up the piece of property that has defined him as a businessman. He announced late last month that he had hired a broker to find potential buyers or development partners for some or all of his harbor-side acreage in South Boston.

Identifying, buying and defending that site have occupied most of McCourt's career.

In 1977, at age 24, he left the family business, McCourt Construction Co., to open his own firm. After a couple of modest residential rehabilitation projects, he made a deal that year with bankrupt Penn Central Railroad to buy what was then an eyesore: an old train yard with a few decrepit, trash-filled buildings. The price was $3.5 million.

As McCourt moved toward a year-end 1980 deadline to close on the purchase, he arranged with Penn Central's permission to have the buildings torn down and the land cleared and graded. Suddenly, anyone with a harbor-view office could see the site for what it was: a big blank slate for development with easy highway, train and airport access, all within a five-minute walk of the downtown financial district.

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