O'Malley: NBA arena not priority

Without state help, mayor says, `We just don't have the money'

Contrast with Schmoke

Luring team unlikely without new facility

February 25, 2000|By Tom Pelton and Jon Morgan | Tom Pelton and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The price of admission to the National Basketball Association appears to be too expensive for Baltimore.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that the city's chances of luring an NBA team appear dim because the state is not willing to help pay for a new arena, which could cost as much as $200 million.

The newly elected executive is not as hot on trying to attract an NBA franchise as former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose administration talked to the San Antonio Spurs and other teams as part of an effort to boost the downtown economy.

Baltimore is the nation's biggest city without either an NHL or NBA team.

"I'd love to have a basketball team," O'Malley said. "But there are bigger life-and-death issues facing this city than bringing a new basketball team to town. Lacking state support for an arena, we just don't have the money right now."

The mayor said he recently talked to Gov. Parris N. Glendening about building a replacement for the 37-year-old Baltimore Arena, but that state funding for another sports facility was "not on his radar screen."

Mike Morrill, a spokesman for the governor, confirmed that the two talked and that the governor did not include arena money in his proposed 2001 capital budget.

"The governor and mayor had a brief conversation about this, and it did not make it to the top of the priority list," Morrill said. "There are many other things that are a higher priority this year, from higher education, to K-12 education to fighting lead paint, all of which are getting significant increases in funding in Baltimore."

To help the city's plans to revitalize the west side of downtown Baltimore, the governor has included $21 million in his proposed budget to reopen the Vaudeville-era Hippodrome Theater.

Schmoke's administration last year hired a pair of consultants to study the possible replacement of the 12,000 seat Baltimore Arena, the oldest indoor facility in the nation's 40 largest sports markets.

Among the options explored by the city were building a 19,000-seat arena for an NBA team, a 17,500-seat arena for an NHL team or a 12,000-seat arena for concerts and ice shows that could be expanded for a sports team.

Charles Graves, the city's director of planning, said yesterday that the city is now looking to pay some $385,000 in the next fiscal year to maintain the current arena instead of trying to raise $150 million to $200 million to build a new one.

"Building a new arena would be very expensive," said Graves.

The arena, which housed the NBA Baltimore Bullets until they moved to Landover in 1973, now draws about a million visitors a year for concerts, ice shows, circuses, Blast soccer games and BayRunners basketball games.

Len Perna, hired by the city to study the possibility of building a new arena, said he's had discussions with NBA and NHL teams and believes Baltimore stands a good chance of acquiring a franchise if and when it is ready to seek one.

One of the better prospects is the Rockets, said Perna, managing director of the Goal Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm retained by Baltimore.

The Rockets failed last year to persuade voters to approve funding for a new arena in Houston. Since then, team officials have acknowledged talking to other cities about relocation while local officials regroup and try to come up with a new plan.

NBA commissioner David Stern took the unusual step earlier this month of publicly saying the Rockets were likely to leave Houston unless the team got a new arena. Relocating a franchise in the NBA requires the approval of 15 of the NBA's 29 franchises.

Other cities that have expressed an interest in the Rockets include Louisville, St. Louis, San Diego, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Perna said he has discussed Baltimore with the Rockets, whose roster includes Takoma Park native and former Maryland star Steve Francis. He thinks Baltimore will have about a year to come to a decision about an arena to remain in the hunt for the Rockets.

"I think Baltimore is the only viable market outside of Houston for Steve Francis and the Rockets," Perna said.

The Rockets did not respond to a request for comment.

Perna said building an arena on Baltimore's west side and attracting an NBA team would be potent economic boosts for the state. They could also prove important to the bid by Baltimore and Washington to play host to the Olympics in 2012, he said.

The Spurs looked closely at a move to Baltimore last year, before San Antonio voters passed a referendum to build an arena. The team commissioned studies of the Baltimore market but dropped the effort when it obtained the local funding, according to two sources familiar with the team's search for a new home.

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