New arena should be more than hoop dream

May 14, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

In recent weeks, Baltimore has seen a harsh light shine on the gaping void in its sports landscape. Beloved ballpark, state-of-the-art football stadium, but nothing even remotely resembling a top-notch basketball facility.

Plans are in the works to change that. Not anytime soon, but by the start of 2007 - thanks to a $100,000 study on the feasibility of a new downtown arena - we'll know if Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium should expect to get a sibling.

Not to disparage 1st Mariner Arena, one-time home of the Bullets and current home of indoor soccer's champion Blast. Considering that it's a little dated, shall we say, the place does well for itself; it was good enough for the Rolling Stones earlier this year and for the Miss USA pageant last month.

But Baltimore can, and should, do better, for concerts, pageants ... and basketball.

In the past 14 months, Washington's Verizon Center has hosted the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament, an NCAA men's regional, the BB&T Classic and three NBA playoff series. Could any or all of those events have been played in Baltimore? We'll never know.

The same goes for dozens of other basketball events on every level for which Baltimore could serve as a destination and a revenue producer like M&T Bank Stadium. Division I conference tournaments. Maryland games, men's or women's (playing here once a year should be a constant). A BB&T-style tournament with area schools. State boys and girls high school championships, now played in College Park and Catonsville. In-season tournaments with area high schools, public and private.

And the pipe dream: the NBA. Oklahoma City building an arena with no team seemed insane, until the Hornets, blown out of New Orleans last season, landed on its doorstep - possibly to stay. With franchises and cities always skirmishing over arenas and leases, and with one, the New Jersey Nets, already setting a move date to Brooklyn, you never know.

Yet the Wizards don't even have a compelling reason to play a preseason game in their former home building.

However, at long last, plans are coming together to do something about it. A coalition of city and state political, business and sports leaders commissioned the study about if and how 1st Mariner Arena can be replaced, with the surrounding area developed along with it.

The study is finished, officials say, but it hasn't been presented to its sponsors, much less acted upon; very few have seen it yet, period. It's highly unlikely it will get a full viewing before November's gubernatorial election; the city and state have to be on the same page on this. Still, plenty from both sides are at least in the same book.

"There are people who care about the city and will advocate for the arena, if it happens," Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said last week.

But, he added, "it will be expensive, and you will need public funding. How that will go, nobody knows." Total cost, no matter the location, probably starts at $100 million. Considering the state of the public schools alone, don't expect residents to giddily support a new arena.

The location and size will affect the cost. Some still want to keep open the possibility of luring an NBA team, while others don't want to potentially double the cost by conforming the capacity and amenities (luxury suites and the like) to NBA standards.

Blast owner and 1st Mariner Bank CEO Ed Hale, for one, would like to see the NBA kept alive as an option - and would like the plans shifted from downtown to the Canton waterfront, with easy Interstate 95 access (not to mention that it's land he controls for development).

He has faith that wherever it's built, it can have a Camden Yards-style (or, more relevant, a Verizon Center-style) effect on the area.

Last week, Hale called the downtown plan "laughable, and you can quote me." Not just because of his own self-interest, he said, but because it would be a nightmare logistically, and construction could slam downtown shut for two years - a prospect that scares others as well.

As for thinking NBA-size, he said Baltimore historically supports major league sports more than minor league, which is what a new arena with 10,000-15,000 capacity would attract.

"If it's a question of whether Baltimore wants to be realistic or hopeful," he said, "I'd like to be optimistic enough to get an arena big enough."

While all of this is hashed out, Kanye West, the circus and various conventions might keep coming to town. Big-time basketball still has to wait.

But to their credit, there are people who don't want to wait much longer.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

More abuse, hostility and hatred has been heaped on players in the name of Babe Ruth than in the name of any other athlete in American history. It makes you wonder what people will come up with if Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez pushes Ruth down to fourth on the home run list someday. Too many at-bats? Too much of an accent? Too pretty?

That having been said, when Kobe Bryant starts approaching some all-time NBA records, duck. It won't be pretty.

More proof of why Game of Shadows, which throws more dirt on doping track and field athletes than on baseball players, is known more as "the Barry Bonds book": Justin Gatlin, the reigning Olympic champion, broke the 100-meter world record Friday, and America's reaction was, "Who broke the what?"

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