Ideas solicited for city arena

Proposals seek fewer seats than NBA, NHL facility

Hale calls that a mistake


October 16, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

Taking the first official step toward replacing the 42-year-old 1st Mariner Arena, the Maryland Stadium Authority is soliciting proposals for a study on the feasibility of building an arena in downtown Baltimore.

The new building would be on the site of the 1st Mariner Arena and would have a smaller seating capacity than would be required for an NHL or NBA team, according to the request for proposals, which are due Nov. 1.

The current arena, built in 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center, seats between 11,000 and 14,000, depending on the configuration. Its primary tenant is the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team, which will play 20 regular-season games there this season.

The request for proposals doesn't specify a seating capacity for a new arena, but it does say it would be "lower than that which would be required for a major league sports tenant."

"We thought we'd leave [the capacity] flexible," said Alison Asti, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "We wanted to send a message that we were not looking to bring another major [league] team with an extremely big, expensive structure, which would have to sell suites and compete with our existing professional sports teams."

John Moag, founder and principal of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based financial consulting firm active in the sports industry and a former chairman of the stadium authority, estimated that limiting the size of a new arena to approximately 15,000 seats would cut the cost by at least half.

"You can't build a [major league] arena in this country for less than $200 million," he said, adding that a 20,000-seat venue in Baltimore was not "economically or programmatically feasible."

But Blast owner Ed Hale, whose bank in 2003 bought the naming rights to what was then called the Baltimore Arena, said that while he thinks the city needs a new arena, contructing one with fewer than the 18,000 seats normally required for the NHL or NBA would be a mistake.

"For the money that you would save, you would relinquish forever the ability to bring in the NHL or NBA," he said. "You're just going to blow the chance."

Hale also said it would be "impractical" to put a new arena on the site of the old one - a city block bounded by Howard, Lombard, Baltimore and Liberty streets .

"If you tear it down, you're going to lose for five years all the events that are there," he said. "There are 132 events this year. So you lose all the events that have been coming there forever."

Hale suggested Westport or Canton as locations where an arena could be built.

"Being right on the interstate would be a good thing," he said.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, one of the groups that requested the stadium authority conduct the study, said his organization's top priority is to make sure the arena stays downtown. The present location would be its preference.

"It makes a lot of sense," Fowler said. "People already identify that area with an arena. There are so many positive developments occurring around there, with the Hippodome and the University of Maryland's expansion. It's a very good site for it."

Asti said the study would help determine how much additional revenue a new arena would generate and who would get the economic benefits. That, in turn, would help determine "who might be the appropriate parties" to pay for it, she said.

"Obviously this is a difficult time for the state, budget-wise," Asti said. "We would have to show that the incremental benefit to the state was sufficient to justify the state's share of the cost.

"And that's not even to say that there should be a state contribution. No one has even determined that at this point. It may be that it's not appropriate to have a state contribution and should be a city-funded project."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said it would be difficult for the city to bear the cost of an arena.

"We are facing drastic cuts from the feds and the state," she said. "We are trying to provide more for our citizens with less."

In addition to being the home of the Blast, the arena plays host to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for two weeks each spring, and to family shows such as Disney's World on Ice as well as concerts.

It was the home of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets before the team moved to the Capital Center in Landover in 1973 and became the Capital Bullets (later the Washington Bullets and then the Washington Wizards). Four minor league hockey franchises have also played at the arena through the years before going out of business.

The Beatles sang at the arena in 1964, as did Elvis Presley in 1977, just months before his death. Other entertainers to perform there include Luciano Pavarotti, Shania Twain, Elton John, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears.

This is not the first time replacing the arena has been discussed. In 1998, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hired a consultant to study 10 potential locations in the city from the Inner Harbor to the former site of Memorial Stadium for a 20,000-seat project. And a proposed new arena was part of the failed bid to bring the 2012 Olympics to the region.

But what has remained clear is that, even after a 1986 renovation, the 1st Mariner Arena needs to be replaced.

"The arena we have is a total embarrassment," said Moag. "There is no fixing it up. It is a disaster. There are a lot of third-tier cities that have a lot better buildings than us. It really is just horrible."

Said Hale: "The building was essentially outmoded as soon as it was built. It's like a horse that was built by a committee that became a camel."

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