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Cooke relents on state's NFL plan


Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, a man impatient with bureaucratic delays, was unhappy with Maryland's plan to give the Schaefer administration 60 days to pursue a franchise for Baltimore -- until he was convinced late last night that the time frame is not meant to impede his team's move to Maryland.

Mr. Cooke, who had expressed annoyance earlier in the day with an agreement between State House leaders and the Schaefer administration on the stadium controversy, met last night with Laurel Race Track co-owner Joe De Francis and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

"Initially he was concerned at the 60-day concept, interpreting it to mean he had to completely stop with his plans," Mr. De Francis said. "When we indicated the 60 days in no way constrained him, he was perfectly comfortable with it.

"He wants to have the stadium ready for the '96 season. He's 81, and he wants to cut the ribbon on opening day. Whether it's '96 or '97 makes a difference. "We're going forward, full steam ahead."

Mr. Cooke wants no administrative obstacles slowing his move to Laurel.

"His only concern is that he be allowed to proceed immediately, no roadblocks," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who supports the Redskins move to Laurel.

"He's willing to test the soil himself, to do the engineering studies" to speed the project. Mr. Miller said Mr. Cooke wants "no one in the bureaucracy to stand in the way with an artificial deadline."

Mr. Cooke has told Maryland officials that he has ended negotiations for new stadium sites in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia and instead wants to buy property adjacent to the Laurel Race Course. But Tuesday's State House agreement initially left him annoyed.

Mr. Cooke believed lease negotiations were moving too slowly in Washington and liked the idea of buying privately held land in Laurel. His intention, his representatives say, was to move ahead quickly with his dream of building a 78,000-seat stadium there.

Tuesday's State House agreement was a truce fashioned to give the Maryland Stadium Authority 60 days to try to find a team to relocate to Baltimore while the state studies how much the public would have to pay for road and other improvements should Mr. Cooke put a stadium in Laurel.

But barely a day after the cease-fire was declared, Maryland legislators and the Stadium Authority were at it again yesterday.

Stadium Authority Chairman Herbert J. Belgrad delivered the administration message to an audience of business leaders: Maryland can support two National Football League teams -- one in Baltimore, and one in Laurel, if the Redskins should decide to RTC move there.

He also warned once again against putting too much trust in Mr. Cooke's repeated statements that he is sincere about moving his team to Laurel. Mr. Belgrad told the BWI Business Partnership, a group of airport-based business executives, that he knows "secondhand" that Mr. Cooke is close to a deal with at least one landowner in Northern Virginia.

A Redskins' official vehemently denied that those talks are still alive.

Mr. Cooke, in what appears to be part of a concerted effort to prove how serious he is about moving his team to a 55-acre tract now owned by Laurel Race Course, Monday began calling Laurel businesses, introducing himself and telling local store owners he would like to get to know them.

Yesterday, Redskins' officials briefed the Greater Laurel Board of Trade, the latest in a series of local government and community meetings.

Mr. Miller was among legislators who praised the administration's spirit of cooperation following a private meeting Tuesday designed to clear the air.

But yesterday, he was openly critical of Mr. Belgrad's stubborn insistence that Baltimore may still land a team.

He complained that the veteran Stadium Authority chairman was putting up "roadblock after roadblock after roadblock," even after it became apparent Baltimore's chances to land a team were diminished.

He noted that National Football League owners rejected Baltimore's plea for an expansion franchise by a lopsided vote at a time the Redskins were still negotiating for a new stadium in Washington, and said, "There's no reason to think that if a vote came up again, with the Redskins 25 miles up the road closer to Baltimore," that the vote would change.

"If there is a viable franchise somewhere else, and they are willing to sign an agreement [to play in Baltimore], then -- as William Donald Schaefer says -- 'Do it now!' "

But Mr. Belgrad says that he doesn't believe a Redskins move to Maryland would end Baltimore's hopes for football.

"Our position is the Redskins and the Colts coexisted for years," he told the business executives at yesterday's breakfast.

"They're two separate and distinct markets" and there is no reason why two teams couldn't locate in Maryland, Mr. Belgrad said..

"Absolutely," he said, "the facts, the history, the traditions support that conclusion. . . . When you have a waiting list of 48,000 [for Redskins tickets], you absolutely have a distinct market."

Mr. Belgrad added that other studies around the country have shown cities benefit more than rural areas from the presence of major-league sports.

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