By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

Backers of the plan to overhaul the Coliseum to attract a pro football team to Los Angeles have hit on a strategy to secure state and federal funding sufficient to close a $61 million gap in their financial package.

That strategy by New Coliseum Partners entails counting state and federal improvements to Exposition Park, including new parking structures, as part of the public investment in the football stadium that the National Football League is demanding.

"All of these things, while they are not being done strictly for the benefit of the Coliseum, would benefit the Coliseum," said attorney and Coliseum Commission Vice President Sheldon Sloan. "It also means that New Coliseum Partners won't have to dip into their own pockets to fund the equivalent amount of parking space and lighting."

Some of that shared infrastructure funding may already be on its way.

Last month, Congress approved $20 million in federal transportation dollars for a new Exposition Park parking structure to be shared by the California Science Center, a rebuilt Coliseum and a renovated Sports Arena. The parking structure was requested by the board of the California Science Center to accommodate overflow crowds generated by the new museum.

"We're not sure how much of that $20 million we can apply, but it will likely reduce the $61 million gap," said John Semcken, executive vice president of New Coliseum Partners.

But before New Coliseum Partners can use those parking-lot funds toward the public financing of the football stadium, the state Legislature must approve $10 million in matching funds. That legislation is now tied up in the budget process. If it is approved, then some of the entire $30 million could be applied toward closing the $61 million gap.

Other Exposition Park improvement projects in the works that could help close the gap, according to Sloan, include a $15 million parking structure on the south side of the Coliseum and lighting improvements. Those improvements are being made to support the park's new California Science Center, soccer fields and a proposed overhaul of the swim stadium and rose gardens.

The scramble for public funds has become particularly intense because the NFL owners are expected to select an owner for the Cleveland expansion team by this fall. With that decision made, the owners are expected to turn their full attention to selecting a city and owner for the league's 32nd team. Leading contenders for that team are Los Angeles and Houston.

"The NFL is looking for the party that can put together the best financial package," Semcken said

Meanwhile, NFL officials are due in town at the end of this month to address a forum of local executives and media about the process of bringing a football team to Los Angeles. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson who chairs the owners' stadium selection committee and Roger Goodell, the league executive in charge of stadium and league development, are slated to speak. The forum, scheduled for July 30, is being hosted by the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission and comes just two days after NFL owners are slated to take up the issue of who will own the Cleveland expansion team.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, however, that an actual decision on Cleveland is not expected to be made until September or October.

As of last fall, when New Coliseum Partners made its presentation to the NFL, the estimated cost to build a football stadium inside the Coliseum was about $297 million. Now, though, the cost could rise to $350 million due to delays in the process, Semcken said.

So far, Semcken said, New Coliseum Partners has managed to cobble together an estimated $237 million in funding about $50 million of that from the public sector in the form of tax credits.

An estimated $106 million would come from New Coliseum Partners principals Ed Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz $66 million in debt and $40 million in equity. Another $50 million is projected from the sale of personal seat licenses (25,000 seats at $2,000 apiece).

That leaves New Coliseum Partners about $61 million short.

Coliseum supporters had hoped to close that gap by getting a state bill passed that would have allowed sales tax revenues generated within a state enterprise zone to be used to repay stadium construction bonds. But that bill died in a Senate committee in May.

Besides the Coliseum plan, the other leading L.A.-area football stadium proposal is the one being pushed by former Walt Disney Co. President Michael Ovitz.

Semcken criticized the Ovitz plan for what he called its lack of specificity.

"They are going to need public financing and they have cleanup costs, traffic mitigation costs and other costs that we don't have," Semcken said. "We have been up front about what we need, but we haven't heard much about these issues from the Ovitz camp."

A spokesman for the Ovitz partnership which also includes grocery magnate Ron Burkle and former Northwest Airlines principal Gary Wilson said they are waiting for the NFL and the yet-to-be-named Cleveland team owners to set the price of the franchise fee before determining just how much public funding is needed for their project.

Carson Interim City Manager Gil Smith said the city will consider putting a financial package together once a formal proposal is presented to the city.

The Ovitz partnership spokesman said that, regardless of whether the stadium is ever built in Carson, the partnership still plans to develop a regional shopping center on the site. Thus, much of the site cleanup, traffic mitigation and parking that would be needed for a stadium would be completed anyway and may not need to be factored into the total stadium cost.

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