Case for arena grows

Help for west side

only one team advised

June 25, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

A new Baltimore arena could be paid for with a special, regional tax and serve as an anchor for the revitalization of downtown's western edge, say city officials.

In the most detailed discussion yet of the proposed sports venue -- which the city hopes will attract a major-league basketball or hockey team -- leaders of the project told a business group yesterday that Baltimore can support one more team and that landing it is not as far-fetched as many assume.

But even without a team, the arena would, along with a refurbished Hippodrome Theater, be a co-anchor of an ambitious effort to stretch the glitter of the Inner Harbor to the west side of downtown, said Len Perna, a consultant hired by the city for the arena project.

"We envision not just a refurbished Hippodrome and a new arena but a comprehensive entertainment and redevelopment project," Perna, managing partner of the Goal Group, said at a breakfast sponsored by the Downtown Partnership.

Over the next 18 months, he hopes to develop a financing plan and cost estimates. Three scenarios are being examined: a 19,000-seat arena for an NBA team, a 17,500-seat arena for an NHL team, or a 12,000-seat arena that could be expanded.

Perna's company, which is working with the consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, surveyed area businesses and concluded there would be sufficient demand for the skyboxes and luxury seating that modern sports franchises count on for revenue.

Doubters have suggested the market may be saturated with PSINet Stadium and Oriole Park and a new football stadium and arena in the Washington area.

But Perna said Baltimore is the nation's largest city without either an NBA or NHL team. Other demographic criteria, such as the number of big businesses and average incomes, also suggest the market could nurture a winter sports franchise, he said.

But a fourth team probably could not be supported, meaning Baltimore would seek either a basketball or hockey franchise but not both, he said.

His discussions with league and team officials also suggest that Washington's NHL and NBA teams would be powerless to prevent a team from moving to Baltimore, he said.

A variety of private, state and city funds would be sought for the arena, he said. Among the ideas under consideration is establishing a "regional asset district," similar to a special-purpose authority that could impose a temporary sales tax surcharge over several counties in the metro area to pay off bonds. Such a tax has been used to build sports facilities in Pittsburgh and Denver.

Also being considered is the establishment of a "tax increment financing district." Used in many cities to promote development, such districts sell bonds to pay for new sidewalks, buildings or other improvements. The bonds are repaid with the additional tax money raised in the invigorated district.

Baltimore planning director Charles Graves said a number of sites are under consideration for the arena, but rebuilding at the current location is the preferred option. A decision on size will be made over the next year.

"We are of a mind-set that we are going to build an arena, with or without a franchise. Our current arena is outmoded," he said.

He said he's had conversations with representatives of several teams, some of which have shown interest. "We were just letting them know what we are doing and what our economic analysis shows," he said.

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, said she was intrigued with the arena project. As for funding, she said state law would need to be changed to permit the city to set up a tax increment financing district.

"That is a tool that Baltimore ought to have in its arsenal," she said. The regional tax, too, is worth study, she said.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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