Concerned that Los Angeles could lose its bid for an NFL team, Mayor Richard Riordan is backing away from his unequivocal support for the Memorial Coliseum as the franchise stadium.
Publicly, Riordan still backs the Coliseum proposal, but aides say the mayor is now open to considering alternatives a significant shift that breathes new life into plans for a football venue adjoining Dodger Stadium.
"The Coliseum has been the premier venue for football in the city of Los Angeles; however, the mayor is a business-minded person and welcomes competition," said Rocky Delgadillo, Riordan's deputy mayor of economic development.
"If there is a better option for the residents of Los Angeles, the mayor would certainly give it his full consideration. But it has to be the best option for the residents of Los Angeles," Delgadillo said.
Delgadillo refused comment on the reasons for the shift, but it comes amid increasing doubts over the city's ability to come up with the $100 million to $200 million in public subsidies required to make the Coliseum renovation happen.
"Financing is difficult in a community that doesn't want to put public dollars into professional sports issues," said Steve Soboroff, senior advisor to Riordan and vice chairman of Football L.A., which is trying to lure an NFL franchise.
Nonetheless, Soboroff said, "we all in the city of Los Angeles have our hearts in Exposition Park" where the Coliseum is located.
But time may be running out. The National Football League long skeptical of the Coliseum proposal is expected to award two NFL expansion franchises as early as next March.
Cleveland is expected to get one of those expansion teams, and Los Angeles is considered a top contender to receive the other if it can come up with a stadium proposal that is acceptable to NFL owners.
L.A.'s leading proposal until now has been one put forth by Edward Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz, who have committed to invest $500 million into overhauling the Coliseum and buying an NFL franchise.
A contingent that included Roski, Soboroff, L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas (whose district includes the Coliseum), and others has attended several NFL owner meetings. But their presentations have failed to impress.
In addition, questions have been raised about the level of Anschutz's commitment to the project. Anschutz, a billionaire who resides in Denver, has been noticeably absent from the various Coliseum-related meetings in L.A. and elsewhere.
In response to those questions, Cannon Y. Harvey, president of Anschutz Corp., sent a letter in late October to Assemblyman Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, who has questioned the viability of the Coliseum.
Despite Harvey's statement of support, the Coliseum plan has continued to languish. At the same time, Hollywood Park has recently reinvigorated its bid for the L.A. franchise, meaning the city of Los Angeles could lose out to Inglewood.
Riordan did not return calls for comment last week, but in an interview Nov. 26, his commitment to the Coliseum seemed to be waning.
"Wherever it is that serves the city of Los Angeles," Riordan said in response to the possibility of an NFL stadium being built somewhere else besides the Coliseum.
In August 1996, Riordan joined other city officials in urging Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley to abandon his plans for a pro football stadium and to support the Coliseum proposal instead.
In a similar vein, developers of a proposed rival stadium for South Park near the Convention Center and at Hollywood Park also sidelined their proposals in favor of the Coliseum.
Three months ago, cracks in that united front began to show at the hearing convened by Polanco. At the time, the South Park and Hollywood Park teams both presented information about their projects.
Ridley-Thomas, who has been the Coliseum's chief proponent, said support for the historic stadium remains strong as demonstrated by phone calls and postcards from about 8,000 people.
"Our support continues to grow," Ridley-Thomas insisted. "I think it's pretty widely held that the Coliseum is the best venue for a range of reasons, but the mistake people are making is to presume what the disposition of the NFL owners is."
At league meetings, however, NFL owners have voiced concerns over the Coliseum proposal because of spotty fan attendance for its last two NFL tenants, the Raiders and Rams. The NFL Stadium Committee, on the other hand, had endorsed the Dodger Stadium proposal in 1996.
From a development perspective, the Dodgers site has certain advantages. For one, the property has a single owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which will get the sprawling Dodger property just north of downtown L.A. as part of its acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball franchise. That deal is expected to close by the end of this month.
By comparison, the South Park project would require the city to use its eminent domain powers to assemble several separately owned parcels often a costly and time-consuming process. And time is extremely short before the NFL makes its decision.
O'Malley, who is selling his baseball team to Murdoch, could not be reached for comment.
O'Malley was reportedly angered about being forced to shelve his football stadium proposal after investing time and money developing a feasibility plan. The sale of the Dodgers, however, gives O'Malley additional resources to pursue the purchase of an NFL team.
Such a move would likely be backed by Murdoch, who, because of News Corp.'s ownership of television rights to NFL games, has a strong interest in seeing pro football return to Los Angeles, the nation's No. 2 television market.
That interest might translate to Murdoch's assistance in developing a stadium. Even if the stadium did not financially pencil out by itself, the enhanced value it would bring to News Corp.'s NFL television rights could ultimately make the deal quite profitable.
One obstacle to the Dodger Stadium project would be community opposition. That opposition, however, was spearheaded by City Councilman Mike Hernandez whose clout in City Hall has been weakened since his arrest last summer on drug possession charges. A campaign to recall Hernandez is now underway.
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