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Football / Sports

Stan Kroenke can buy the land, but can he move the Rams

ST. LOUIS -- If Stan Kroenke really plans to move his St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles, buying a piece of land big enough for a stadium may prove to be the easy part.

For two decades now, rich and powerful men have been trying to bring the NFL back to one of the nation's biggest, most glamorous, and most complicated cities. None have succeeded. Now the man they call "Silent Stan" may be in the mix. But the hurdles facing him are just as daunting.

Kroenke hasn't even said that he wants to build a stadium on the 60 acres he purchased in Inglewood last month. A statement Friday said simply that his company "will look at all our options." And it's quite possible the deal is designed to strengthen Kroenke's hand in negotiations over the Edward Jones Dome, just as several other teams have dangled L.A. moves to win concessions at home.

The Rams have proposed big upgrades to the publicly owned Edward Jones Dome, designed to place it among the top quarter of NFL stadiums. If the Dome does not meet that criteria by the end of this year, the team is free to go elsewhere. The Rams are still in negotiations with Gov. Jay Nixon. Some say Kroenke's L.A. purchase is designed to turn up the heat on those talks.

Should Kroenke move forward with big plans in Southern California, he certainly wouldn't lack for competition. No, he'd join a line of ambitious, but thus-far-fruitless, efforts to capture one of the Holy Grails of professional sport.

"For the past few years it has sort of been a parlor game in L.A. real estate," said Jenny Schuetz, a real estate professor at the University of Southern California. "Are we finally going to get an NFL team? And where?"

There are at least four other L.A. sites that have been proposed for a new stadium.

The most prominent -- it has already sold naming rights -- is Farmers Field, a $1.2 billion plan by sports and entertainment company AEG to put a new stadium downtown, next to the L.A. Convention Center. The project has the backing of City Hall and was fast-tracked by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011. But relations between AEG and the NFL have been rocky and project developers have been quiet in recent months.

Another big development group wants to put a stadium on 600 acres in City of Industry, 25 miles east of downtown L.A. But financing has been a challenge there, and the development has been dormant for a year. Other sites, including Dodger Stadium and an industrial stretch of the city of Carson, are in the mix too, but are seen as more speculative.

The people behind any of those sites could make life complicated for Kroenke, especially the groups working on downtown and the City of Industry, who have already spent considerable time and money on their efforts, Schuetz said.

"They've both been proposed by really heavy hitters who have a lot of political clout," Schuetz said. "That's going to be a big factor in this."

But Kroenke brings something else to the table that no elsecan offer: A team.

Owning a ready-made tenant for the facility would certainly smooth the financing process, several experts said. And having one of their own running the whole operation could make the tight club of NFL owners more comfortable with an L.A. deal, said Mark Rosentraub, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan, who has consulted on stadium deals.

"If the owner of the team owns the land, you have one less hurdle," he said. "There are other hurdles, though."

Any stadium, even if it clears the backroom politics of both Los Angeles and the NFL, will face an arduous public process of permitting and approvals. The site will likely need zoning changes, experts say. There will be an environmental impact study -- which in the case of Farmers Field topped 10,000 pages -- and California law gives nearby residents broad rights to sue on environmental grounds. Activists will likely push for local hiring and prevailing wage requirements.

"The official term is a 'boatload' of hearings," said Eric Sussman, a veteran L.A. developer and lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles Anderson School of Management. "There's City Council involvement. Community activism. They open these up for everyone and the speakers range from comical to depressing. Everyone gets a voice. This just takes eons."

The good news for Kroenke is that Inglewood officials seem to want a stadium in their city, and think it will help spur development nearby. Inglewood Mayor James Butts told the Post-Dispatch that he considers the Hollywood Park land to be "the best (place) in Southern California for a football stadium." But should the competition devolve into an intra-regional bidding war -- public subsidies for stadiums are banned in California but cities can help with parking and other needs -- Inglewood, population 110,000, has considerably shallower pockets than, say, the City of Los Angeles.

But at the end of all these economic, political and community hurdles, there is a pot of gold. Whoever is the first person to bring professional football back to the nation's second-biggest city will eventually make a lot of money doing it, Rosentraub said.

"It would be extraordinarily profitable," he said. "It's the most underserved market in pro sports. On any criteria you'd want to discuss, the indicators are good."

And the same may prove true of Kroenke's new 60 acres in Inglewood.

Whether he ultimately builds a stadium there, uses it to wring more concessions out of St. Louis, flips it to a new buyer, or develops on his own, Kroenke can't really lose here, said Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA. Inglewood may still be down on its heels, but it's relatively close to affluent, desirable areas in a sprawling region that is becoming more focused on its center. Taking the long view, Gabriel said, owning 60 acres of that sort of land is never a bad investment.

"It's very well-located and affordable property in the L.A. basin. Eventually, the real estate imperatives of place and access and pricing will come into play," Gabriel said. "I think this is a very astute move."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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