City can't compete without a new arena

March 07, 2002|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHILE THE Howard Street department stores were gearing up for the 1964 fall shopping season, Memorial Stadium's two tenants were treating their fans to memorable performances.

The Orioles were in a red-hot three-way pennant race that would go down to the wire, and the Colts were beginning a season that would take them to their third Western Conference championship.

And a worldwide phenomenon descended on the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street, then distinguished by its revolving rooftop restaurant, when it played host to the Beatles when they came to town to perform at what was called the Civic Center and is now the Baltimore Arena.

The downtown department stores are long gone, of course, and Baltimore's two major professional sports teams now reside in twin publicly financed palaces at Camden Yards. But the arena remains and, despite some cosmetic renovation, is substantially the same facility that provided the venue for Baltimore's brush with the Fab Four more than 37 years ago.

Although it was new at the time, the Civic Center had inherent deficiencies. Its rectangular configuration entirely ignored the concept of sight lines, and the stage was awkwardly recessed, garage-like, into one end. The boxy envelope also meant that many second-deck seats had obstructed views of the floor. Some planned features fell victim to budget-cutting, the most notable being a sliding roof for open-air events. The building's otherwise inexplicably weird roofline is all that remains of that design idea. Capacity was also limited to less than 12,000.

These original shortcomings are fundamental problems that cannot be corrected by renovation, and they have been joined over time by the glaring absence of what are now considered standard amenities. While it remains an active host for ice shows, circuses and the undeniable fun of indoor soccer, it is woefully inadequate as a site for today's major shows and concerts, big league basketball and hockey and, perhaps most significantly, the largest conventions and trade shows. All of these events now bypass Baltimore for lack of our ability to provide a proper forum.

That's significant, because downtown Baltimore today is economically dependent on its ability to attract recreational dollars. The old engines of commerce have been replaced by entertainment and tourism, inconceivable in 1964.

Having thus jumped headlong into the saving waters of a vibrant service economy, we are, like it or not, in competition with many other cities that have adopted the same economic strategy. In this context, the absence of a viable indoor facility is a severe disadvantage.

Consider that we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a baseball park and football stadium that, even with postseason possibilities, host fewer than 100 dates per year. Those games, in addition to tax revenues from ticket sales and the benefits of major league status, each bring vitality, along with consumer dollars, to the entire downtown area.

But an arena has the potential to host events daily virtually year-round. While a new arena would have a capacity of less than half of Oriole Park and less than a third of the football stadium, it could be active more than 3 1/2 times as often as those two combined.

A state-of-the-art arena would also put Baltimore in play to host large-scale conventions, even including a national political convention, the last of which came to town 90 years ago. The potential payoff from a regular schedule of such events is immeasurable. In fact, the lack of a competitive arena vastly diminishes the benefits of having invested in the Convention Center.

For these reasons, it is encouraging to see that some local business people are pushing a plan to replace the existing arena with a new one aimed at furthering the downtown economy in general and the west-side redevelopment initiative in particular. The problem, of course, is funding. But nothing can happen if a plan is not in place.

A site should be identified and a land disposition proposal drafted. Appropriate state agencies must be engaged in the process. Necessary infrastructure improvements should be designed and priced. Financing options, including bonds and lottery sources, ought to be fully evaluated, and a marketing approach developed for attracting potential private partners.

If we fail to build a new arena for lack of funds, so be it. But shame on us if we fail for not having the foresight, determination and leadership necessary to make it possible.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a downtown law firm.

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