Maryland hurries to lure Disney, but company is still attracted to Virginia


Walt Disney Co.'s decision to withdraw its plans to build a history theme park near Haymarket, Va., is the opening Maryland officials have hoped for, but it might not be big enough.

The Schaefer administration moved quickly yesterday to fill the void, making a long-shot attempt at interesting Disney officials in relocating their Disney's America theme park in Maryland.

The public signals were not encouraging. Disney continued to emphasize its devotion to the Old Dominion, and even an enthusiastic Gov. William Donald Schaefer acknowledged that the difficulties of assembling a parcel of almost five square miles could be insurmountable.

But with thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenue on the line, state officials did everything but line the Maryland shore of the Potomac River with welcome mats yesterday.

Mr. Schaefer said Maryland would "absolutely" make a pitch to Disney to move here, and heaped flattery on the company.

"They're a first-class organization," he said. "Very, very attuned to the environment. They're clean. Their employees are well-trained. They bring a lot of good tourists in. Everything is orderly in their parks."

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, said he spoke with Disney officials yesterday and received enough encouragement to begin compiling a list of site options. But he said no specific sites were discussed.

Publicly, Disney officials said yesterday that they'll try for another sitein Virginia, where the governor and General Assembly went to extraordinary lengths to try to accommodate the company's original plans. "We are committed to Virginia," said Dana Nottingham, president of Disney's America.

Even so, industry experts said that Disney may have to widen its search. Much of Virginia is too far from population centers and transportation, they said. And the parts that aren't may be unable to deliver the huge tract Disney needs for the $625 million park.

"I would think the reports that they want to stay in Virginia couldbe stretched a little," said Rand Griffin, a former Disney development official who is president of Constellation Real Estate Group.

One problem Disney will continue to face in Northern Virginia is the profusion of Civil War battlefield sites. The proximity of the Haymarket site to the Manassas battlefields, which touched off a furor among historians, is one of the main reasons Disney gave up on Haymarket. In Maryland, the supply of such hallowed ground is limited to the Antietam battlefield near Sharpsburg and the Monocacy battlefield south of Frederick.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who said he had lunch with Disney Chairman Michael Eisner about two months ago, said he urged the executive to keep Maryland in mind if the Virginia site fell through.

That's certainly Mr. Schaefer's hope. He was a conspicuous booster of Disney's plans in Virginia, publicly predicting a generous spillover of economic benefits. He and his administration officials passed up opportunities to throw a monkey wrench into the Haymarket plans, but, at the same time, positioned themselves just in case things went sour.

Mr. Schaefer's support likely will have limited value. Next January another governor will take office, and any deal Mr. Schaefer cut would have to be carried out by either Republican Ellen Sauerbrey or Democrat Parris Glendening.

Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mr. Glendening said they would welcome a Disney theme park if an appropriate site can be found. They both said they were open to the idea of providing an incentive package, as Virginia Gov. George Allen did, but Mr. Glendening said he would not use political muscle to win approval for a site over determined local opposition.

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Sauerbrey said the Republican would take into account whether the opposition was reasonable.

Even with the support of the next governor, the task of finding a site in Maryland that is close enough to Washington to satisfy Disney could be just as troublesome as it was in Virginia. Traffic and environmental questions will likely follow the park wherever it goes, and piecing together a contiguous tract of some 3,000 acres -- the size of the proposed Haymarket site -- will be a challenge.

"The assembly of a holding of that magnitude is extraordinarily difficult, just by the nature of the East Coast," said Al Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., developer of Columbia and shopping malls across the country.

By comparison, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is considering a site of about 100 acres to build a 78,600-seat football stadium in Laurel.

Asked if any single owner might have 3,000 acres to sell in Maryland, Mr. Scavo laughed. "We do," he said, "but we're not talking to them." A theme park on Rouse's Howard County land would be an "inconsistent" land use under zoning laws, he noted.

John Gudelski, president of Percontee Inc., a Silver Spring-based company with large land holdings in the state, said large tracts were available in Prince George's and Charles counties but that the infrastructure might not be there to make those sites attractive. Southern Maryland is not close to an interstate highway.

Western Maryland officials, whose region is criss-crossed by several interstates, couldn't wait to leap on the Disney bandwagon.

"Our doors are open. We're standing here ready and willing and able to welcome Disney to Maryland," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents Allegany and Washington counties.

TC But enthusiasm dimmed closer to Washington -- in precisely those areas that might interest Disney the most.

"My instinct is that people like the idea of having the park nearby," said Joseph E. Lebherz, executive director of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. "But they do have general transportation concerns. I think Frederick County might be a little shy of having Disney in the county. It would add to the traffic problems."

In the end, all the flattery and enticements might be moot. Mr. Scavo said he suspects Disney already has strong idea of where its next site might be.

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