A new Baltimore Arena is still being sought by GBC

Group says more seats needed to attract events

September 25, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The Greater Baltimore Committee is pursuing the construction of a new Baltimore Arena despite last month's demise of the Washington-Baltimore 2012 Olympics bid and the absence of a major league basketball or hockey team.

"From the beginning, we've assumed a new arena needed to be built in Baltimore regardless of the Olympics," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the GBC, Baltimore's largest business organization that deals with public policy. "Winning the Olympics would have made everyone's decision easy. But the bottom line is, we need a new arena, regardless."

The arena, bounded by Baltimore, Lombard, Howard and Liberty streets, is the oldest of its type in the country for a city of Baltimore's size, Hutchinson said. Built in 1962, it seats 11,000 to nearly 14,000, depending on seat configuration.

Outdated and not competitive in today's market, the arena - where the Beatles appeared in 1964 and Elvis Presley in 1977, months before he died - is losing business. Last year, the arena played host to 111 events, down from 152 in 2000, Hutchinson said.

"We feel we could bring those numbers up to 150 or 160 with a new arena," he said. "Top level performers who can appear anywhere in the United States don't like to go places where there are poor dressing rooms, poor acoustics and poor staging."

The arena is not able to compete for National Collegiate Athletic Association championships or Olympic trials, said Donna P. Julian, the facility's general manager.

"We have these wonderful events that would be great for the city, but the building is holding us back," she said yesterday. "The building is 40 years old."

At best, a new arena for Baltimore is five to seven years off, Hutchinson estimated.

New data from PricewaterhouseCoopers show that a new arena could boost attendance from the current 800,000 to 1.4 million to 1.5 million in the first year even if the city does not land a major professional basketball or hockey team, Hutchinson said.

The GBA recently asked the consulting firm to update a 1999 feasibility study.

1 million in 1990

Records that date to 1989 show the arena attracted 1 million people in 1990, arena officials said.

The arena lost its National Basketball Association team, the Baltimore Bullets, in the 1970s, and several minor league hockey teams have collapsed. It remains the home arena for a professional soccer team, the Baltimore Blast.

"It's very possible that an 18,000- to 20,000-seat arena could work in the Baltimore marketplace without a major league franchise tenant," said Richard Wetzel, director of business development for Heinlein Schrock Stearns in Kansas City, Mo., an architectural firm that specializes in sports facilities.

"It would be a challenge to generate enough event nights without the tenant, but there certainly are cities where it has happened," Wetzel said.

He identified Kansas City and Oklahoma City as places with arenas that have no major league franchises.

But any new arena has to offer a variety of ways to generate revenue to be successful, he said. Suites, club lounges, team stores and separate retail stores help attract people to games and other events early and keep them later, he said.

`Smaller the better'

Len Perna, president of Turnkey Sports, in Highland, takes a more conservative view of the size arena Baltimore should consider if it will not have a major league sports franchise.

"The smaller the better," said Perna, who worked on an earlier study for the city in 1999 when his firm was called Goal Group Consulting.

"Whatever tenant you put in that building is going to sell tickets based on perceived demand. People lease suites and club seats based on the expectations of lots of events in the building."

In the 1999 study, Perna's firm concluded that a new arena in Baltimore would need a major tenant to be viable and recommended an 18,000-seat arena with a sports franchise.

"We didn't say it was impossible for a new arena to be built without a major tenant; we're just saying the economics make more sense with a major tenant," he said. "It would be pretty difficult for an arena to be self-supporting without a major tenant."

No one in Baltimore is engaged in trying to bring a hockey or basketball franchise to Baltimore, Hutchinson said.

"No one thinks that's a realistic possibility for us," he said. "We can support two franchises. But Baltimore ought not to put itself in place to compete for another major franchise, because at some point you cannibalize the existing franchises."

But it would make sense to build an arena that could accommodate sporting events including college basketball, an indoor soccer league and perhaps minor league hockey, he said.

The momentum for a new arena received a boost while Washington-Baltimore was in the race for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A new arena was part of the region's proposal.

More than six months ago, Janet Marie Smith, a vice president at Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, floated a plan calling for a $130 million arena with a seating capacity of 20,000, to be constructed on the site of the existing arena or on a nearby lot. It is one idea being considered by the GBC, Hutchinson said.

The group has endorsed no plan and has made no decisions on size, cost or financing for a new arena, he said.

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