Private money needed for arena

April 25, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THE philosophy of build it and they will come, a philosophy made popular by the baseball movie "Field of Dreams," no longer carries much weight. Governments don't want to erect costly stadiums and indoor arenas without a guarantee that professional sports teams will occupy them.

It's a matter of basic economics. It was the guiding principle when state leaders authorized a new Baltimore football stadium more than a decade ago: Lawmakers rightly insisted that no facility would be built until after a National Football League team had signed an ironclad agreement to make Camden Yards its home.

For $220 million, it's understandable that lawmakers in Annapolis wanted assurance they weren't about to construct a white elephant.

This could pose a barrier for the recently announced plans by city fathers to pursue a new arena for Baltimore. At a price tag of $200 million, state lawmakers aren't going to be wild about a project that lacks major professional sports tenants.

And getting a professional hockey or basketball team to commit to a project that is flimsy at this stage is a fantasy.

The only way Baltimore will get the 20,000-seat arena it deserves is to find some wealthy private investors who still have faith in the "build it and they will come" approach.

Home of the circus

Even without big-league sports teams, a new civic center could break even or return a small profit from the circus, ice shows, wrestling, minor-league sports and music shows that now frequent the Baltimore Arena.

But to win General Assembly support to underwrite a portion of construction costs, the city will need to find a group of private-sector investors with deep pockets. Such an investment group would need to have the financial muscle and contacts to seek out major-league hockey and basketball clubs looking for a new home.

State financial support also won't be possible without a major commitment from City Hall to back a new arena with tax credits and dedicated tax funds. This could pay for a big chunk of the construction bonds. State lawmakers from other jurisdictions will insist on it.

Versatile complex

As Oriole Park at Camden Yards has shown, you can pay for a new sports facility with profits from the stadium and a rub-off lottery game. In one respect, a new arena would have a giant advantage over Oriole Park: Instead of playing host to 81 events a year like the baseball stadium, a new arena could be busy 200 or even 300 days a year. That would greatly bolster the arena's revenue-generating potential.

Private investment, though, remains key. Maryland lawmakers aren't going to shell out $200 million again for a sports complex. A much smaller state role is still possible, though, given Annapolis' recent commitment to spend $45 million on bonds as its share of a $90 million arena to replace Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, College Park. (The university will pay the remaining sum through its own revenue bonds, private donations, athletic department proceeds and arena parking fees.)

If the city puts its money on the table and private investors contribute heavily to the project, the size of the state's contribution would be relatively modest. Such a turn of events might give this proposal a fighting chance of gaining support in the State House.

Westside plan

Tying the construction of a new arena to the city's massive Westside renewal plan, especially the state-backed Hippodrome Theater renovation, would make it more attractive to Annapolis lawmakers.

By the time the city is ready to go to the legislature with a firm arena proposal -- with financial backers in hand -- the first stage of the west downtown improvements should be nearing completion.

Under those circumstances, a new arena wouldn't look like a white elephant, but rather a solid addition to an exciting downtown development effort already bearing fruit.

The city also needs to enroll backers of the Westside project -- the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Orioles' owner Peter G. Angelos, the Weinberg Foundation and the University of Maryland Medical System -- as part of the team lobbying for state financial help to bring a vibrant arena to this key development area.

The next mayor will have to bring all the elements of this project together. That will require consensus-building, creativity and the determination to find a group of wealthy private investors. It would be a major challenge, but not as impossible as it appears today.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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