New city arena needed

This Just In ...

fat cats should pay for it

April 16, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

YOU KNOW you're from Baltimore if you still call it the Civic Center. And you know you're from Baltimore if you always thought it was a stupid idea to put a stage in it. (Bad design, waste of seating space. "They shoulda tore this place down the day they built it!") And now you know you're from Baltimore if you cringe at the prospect of spending more taxpayer millions to build a new downtown arena, but you can't bring yourself to say it's a terrible idea. Can you?

National Basketball Association? National Hockey League? Pearl Jam? Sesame Street on Ice? Raw Is War? Light rail to the Lil Fair?

Yeah, baby.

Baltimore needs a new arena -- it's way overdue -- and right on the site of the current one, which is as old as Cal Ripken, has that stage that should never have been built, mediocre sightlines and not enough seats or suites to make it attractive to an NBA or NHL franchise. (A storage room was transformed into a press center during an NCAA basketball tournament.)

At the risk of sounding like the starry-eyed idealist I used to be, let me say this: It would be nice, for a change, if the private sector built this new arena. Private money. Moolah from millionaires. Not taxpayer money. No scratch-off games. No corporate welfare.

Cabeesh?

Call me crazy, but I think a group of suits with civic spirit, guys like Ed Hale and Otis Warren, could pull this off.

Abe Pollin did it in Washington.

Let's talk about Abey-baby for a minute.

He bankrolled the MCI Center in downtown Washington because his teams -- the Wizards and the Capitals -- play there. He built his own playground.

Baltimore, on the other hand, has to start from scratch. We don't have the Abey edge.

We'll have to get an NBA or NHL franchise to move here.

That won't happen easily. Protecting his turf to the south, Abey-baby might not like Baltimore getting an NBA or NHL franchise, and the other team owners would probably side with him.

So I'll tell you what Baltimore's movers and shakers must be thinking: To get an NBA or NHL franchise here, we have to do what we did to get a National Football League team here -- give away the house. The main tenant of the new arena, the NHL or NBA franchise, would have to be the main beneficiary of it. We'll have to make some rich guy very rich to get him to move to Lombard Street.

It's what we've done before. It's what we'll do again.

Unless we adopt a tougher, cockier attitude.

Can I see a show of hands? How many are all for tougher, cockier?

Why make taxpayers fund a new arena, then hand the keys over to the wealthy owner of a basketball or hockey team?

It doesn't have to be.

Remember: A new, cool arena will increase the value of most NBA or NHL franchises virtually overnight. Look at what Camden Yards did for the value of the Ravens and the Orioles. (Eli Jacobs paid $70 million for a baseball team in Memorial Stadium and sold it five years later at Camden Yards for $173 million.) A new arena would be just up the street from our widely praised downtown sports complex. With the right look and hip amenities, it could become as much of an attraction as Camden Yards. It could make Baltimore an attractive market for NBA or NHL expansion.

And an arena that is privately funded could make its ownership rich because there are a million ways to make money with it.

That's where I come in as an advocate of a new arena. Having an NBA team here would be great. Having an NHL team also would be great (though I have serious questions about whether there's enough fan support for hockey). Getting more college basketball in downtown Baltimore -- the Terps in regular season, NCAA tournament games -- is an exciting prospect. And a new, cool arena for family entertainment -- ice shows, concerts, circuses -- will benefit far more Marylanders than the increasingly elitist sportsplex at Camden Yards does.

Count me among those who, for years, have made trips to the Baltimore Arena for all sorts of things -- a Village People concert, a Pavarotti concert, minor-league hockey, indoor soccer, the circus, ice shows, kids shows. Despite its well-known flaws, it's not as bad as people say. Reba McEntire and Shania Twain performed to sellout audiences. So did Dru Hill. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled solid numbers for two weeks last month. Ever seen the World Wrestling Federation's Raw Is War? A mad house, a sellout.

All of this, and then some, would hold for a new arena. Bring big rock and country concerts to downtown Baltimore, bring in giant gospel reviews, keep the ice shows and circuses coming -- and keep the ticket prices reasonable -- and most Marylanders won't grumble so much when it comes time to pay the bill.

But we shouldn't have to pay the bill.

A big, new arena in downtown Baltimore should be attractive to private investors. Let them work this out. Instead of bidding on the Washington NFL franchise, maybe Peter Angelos could form a partnership to grab a struggling NHL or NBA team from another city. Or maybe Hale, Warren or other civic spirits with bread could muscle their way to the front of the expansion line and install a new team in a new arena. Sports fans would get professional basketball or hockey; the rest of us would get a cool place to take our kids for ice shows and monster-truck rallies. Yeah, baby.

Pub Date: 04/16/99

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