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Marriott theme park, Redskins stadium once planned in Laurel [History Matters]

Throughout its history, Laurel's location between two major metropolitan cities has made the town a target for eager developers. Two super-sized projects were proposed, one in the 1970s and one in the 1990s, and both were ultimately defeated after resounding public opposition. Either project would have had a major impact on Laurel's economy and community, had they come to fruition.

Marriott's Great America Park

In 1972 the Marriott Corporation announced ambitious plans to open three Great America theme parks. Two parks, in California and Chicago, were completed, and a third park was planned in Howard County, at the southwest quadrant of Route I-95 and Route 32.

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel participated in the announcement of the massive 850-acre complex, which was to have three separate parks. A theme park would reflect the diverse regions of the U.S. by replicating areas such as Cape Cod, the Old West, rural America and the Klondike. A grand-scale marine park was planned, with observation windows under lakes and tanks, and live shows similar to Sea World. An animal preserve would have allowed visitors to ride trams through jungle settings, observing animals in the "wild."

Mandel pronounced that "Marriott's plans put Maryland on the threshold of a great new tourist boom."

The park was supposed to be open in time for the nation's bicentennial celebration in 1976. The Feb. 3, 1972 Laurel News Leader described the convenience of the proposed park: "It will be immediately accessible from the new leg of high-speed I-95 opened last July between the two cities, and is three miles from the 'new town' of Columbia. There is almost one mile of frontage on I-95."

The first hurdle for Marriott was to get Howard County to rezone the land, since no existing zone designations applied. To accommodate all of Marriott's plans, the county would have to create a new "EC" (Entertainment Center) zoning district.

Marriott claimed the park would employ 3,500 people from the greater Laurel/Columbia area, drawing from Prince George's, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties. The majority would be "hosts and hostesses" operating rides and staffing food facilities. Marriott promised that it would "draw heavily on area youth for its personnel," reported the News Leader.

Laurel officials were caught up in this economic euphoria. According to the News Leader, "The proximity to Laurel should bring additional revenue, especially to local businesses, a possibility that the Greater Laurel Chamber of Commerce executive director Joseph Edwards sees as 'simply wonderful.' "

Not everyone agreed. One of the first citizens groups formed to fight the development and to voice its opposition was Emmanuel United Methodist Church, on Scaggsville Road. The church opposed the project because "it would foster the growth of undesirable commercial blight, not only in the immediate area of the park, but in other areas of the county as well." Church members told the News Leader that although "the extra taxes and the jobs for youth would be nice, they still stick to their love of the rural life they lead."

Marriott appealed to many local groups in small community meetings. They scoffed at comparisons to the newly opened Disney World and the various problems faced by Orlando residents. In one meeting covered by the News Leader, Richard Cook, president of the Concerned County Citizens, admonished Marriott with, "We don't need a fabricated Great America here. We already have a Great America right here."

Marriott brought a city planner from Chicago to address the Howard County Zoning Board. In front of a packed, hostile audience, the planner said that in the many studies of giant entertainment parks he conducted, the local populations welcomed the parks. "That comment drew snickers and suppressed laughter from the 600 residents," reported the Washington Post.

Eventually, Marriott's zoning application was denied, ending its pursuit of the park in the Laurel area. They set their sights next on Manassas, Va., where the outcry was even worse as opponents were offended that Civil War hallowed ground would be considered.

After exhausting all avenues, the corporation told the Baltimore Sun in 1978 that it was in "no rush" to try again after losing out in Howard County and Manassas, and absorbing $2 million in losses for their efforts.

Their corporate memory is convenient. A timeline on Marriott's web site is titled "Our History of Innovation." For 1972, the caption says "Marriott…announces plans for two Great America theme parks."

Jack Kent Cooke Stadium

Jack Kent Cooke was an extraordinarily successful businessman, but he was no historian. He obviously wasn't paying attention to Marriott's struggle to build a park near Laurel.

For years, Cooke had complained about old, dilapidated RFK Stadium, home field for his Washington Redskins. The team was losing out on millions of dollars in revenue that newer stadiums with sky boxes and private suites provided.

After courting different jurisdictions around the Washington area for a site, Cooke announced in 1993 that Laurel was his first choice. The Washington-based media frenzy that had reported on Cooke's dealings and failures with Washington, Fairfax County, Arlington and Loudon County now zeroed in on Laurel. The News Leader and the Baltimore Sun joined the fray. The News Leader ran a "Redskins Watch" column every week to update readers on the latest news.

Cooke told the Sun, "Since the majority of Redskins fans who attend RFK stadium are Marylanders, I have opted to build the stadium in Laurel." The Sun added that this marked "the third time in a year he definitely has announced a site for a new stadium." Cooke also said he would consider changing the team's name to the Maryland Redskins or the Baltimore-Washington Redskins.

As with Marriott's experience, opposition was swift, and this time came from even higher places. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer told the Sun he didn't want the team. Schaefer had been working for years to replace the Colts with another NFL team.

"I want to make it clear that I am opposed and will remain opposed to the Redskins moving to Laurel, and the state will not assist or cooperate in such a move as long as I'm governor," said Schaefer.

Cooke was not the sort to let such statements dissuade him. In December 1993, he purchased 25 acres adjoining Laurel Park racetrack. His army of consultants began an extensive PR campaign, lobbying local governments. Like Marriott, they also took their case directly to the people, addressing community meetings in Laurel, Savage, Maryland City and other surrounding communities.

Many local elected officials and business organizations supported the stadium. When told that Jack Kent Cooke was on the phone, Laurel Mayor Joe Robison's reaction was "yeah, sure." Robison recalls that he had a "very pleasant" conversation. Cooke thanked the mayor for supporting the stadium.

It was full speed ahead for Cooke. The Redskins opened an office on Route 1 in Laurel, and local shops started selling "Laurel Redskins" T-shirts.

Once again, not everyone agreed. On Jan. 6, 1994, the News Leader featured a photo of Cooke's head filling the entire cover with a very large headline, "Can we trust this man?" The distrust many felt was captured in the story: "Will he give more than a passing thought to his new neighbors of Russett, Bacontown, and Maryland City? Or to the homes along Route 198 within Laurel city limits, where the sidewalks squeeze in on a two-lane road? Will he care if Route 1 is gridlocked on a Sunday afternoon from Jessup to College Park?"

On March 10, 1994, the Washington Post reported that Cooke had won over his most ardent foe, Governor Schaefer. Claiming that "the economic welfare of the state" was at stake, Schaefer endorsed the stadium in Laurel and said it would be an "important economic asset."

Now all that remained was to obtain zoning approvals (again, similar to Marriott). To build the stadium, Cooke needed several zoning exceptions.

On Oct. 12, 1994, Anne Arundel County zoning officer Robert Wilcox rejected Cooke's application. "This was not a close case," Wilcox told the Associated Press. "Simply stated, the property is too small for the proposed use."

There would be many months of appeals, but in the end the Cooke stadium show moved on and settled in Landover. The Sun was pleased: "The Laurel Redskins were a bad idea from the get-go, not just for the people in whose back yards they hoped to set up camp, but for Maryland and all its taxpayers."

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com.

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