U.S. Lacrosse wants to leave its cramped North Baltimore home for a new $25 million headquarters and sports complex at the Inner Harbor - a prominent site that the organization hopes would give the growing sport more stature.
The organization's leaders want to build the National Lacrosse Center on the waterfront near Fells Point rather than move it out of Maryland. But officials said yesterday that it cannot happen without nearly $8 million in aid from the state and subsidies from the city.
"I feel very strongly that our organization stay here - I think it makes sense to be here," said U.S. Lacrosse Executive Director Steve Stenersen. "If the stars align, this will be a wonderful site."
U.S. Lacrosse, a national organization that has leased space for about a decade near the Johns Hopkins University, wants to be among the first to move into Harbor Point, a fledgling development on the once-contaminated site of a former chromium plant.
A move to Harbor Point, the largest undeveloped tract along the Inner Harbor, would enable the nonprofit to expand from 12,000 square feet to about 42,000 square feet.
It would be able to hire more people, bolster the Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame, and build a conference and training center where coaches from across the country could come to learn. There would be room for a 3,000-seat arena for exhibition matches and clinics for local schoolchildren.
All of this would be happening on a site that juts into the Inner Harbor - steps from some of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions and biggest hotels.
"This is the fastest-growing sport in the country, yet most people don't even know we exist," Stenersen said. "That's part of our challenge - raising public awareness of our sport."
U.S. Lacrosse estimates that a move to Harbor Point would cost at least $25 million. It is asking the state for two $3.75 million grants - one in the next fiscal year, the other in 2009. The organization would raise the rest privately.
Clarence Bishop, acting deputy secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state will consider the request.
"It's certainly something we should embrace and look at seriously," he said, adding that being able to boast a sport's governing body is "a big deal" for a city or state. "It's a pretty interesting proposal. The question that has to be asked is whether or not it's the highest and best use for the site they're interested in."
Days ago, Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley urging him to find money in the budget for the proposed lacrosse center. "State support is vital," Brodie wrote. "Without it ... there is a real chance the National Lacrosse Center will move outside of Maryland. We must not let this happen! Can we count on your support?"
U.S. Lacrosse would also need subsidies from Baltimore - possibly in the form of tax breaks, Stenersen said.
The project seems to have support from city officials.
Andy Frank, deputy mayor for neighborhoods and economic development, said that having the lacrosse organization and its Hall of Fame at Harbor Point would be a great attraction for the city but officials will have to see whether a subsidy makes financial sense.
"We'd love to position ourselves as being the lacrosse capital of the world," he said. "If in fact there was a justification for closing a [financial] gap, I would imagine we'd look favorably at that."
City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Shaun E. Adamec, said: "U.S. Lacrosse is an important part of the city's heritage, and she is certainly in support of any assistance the city can offer to ensure that they remain that way."
The last time Baltimore played host to the NCAA Division I lacrosse championship, in 2004, it brought in an estimated $15 million, with 40,000 people in town for the event, according to the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association.
When the championships return this Memorial Day, BACVA Executive Director Thomas J. Noonan expects even more attendees, more booked hotel rooms and more money coming into the city. He says that having the lacrosse center so close to downtown would help the city land more of those tournaments.
"It would help us long term in bringing those matches," he said. "Baltimore will become known as the natural home of lacrosse. That's the message that would come across."
The lacrosse organization is growing as fast as the sport it advocates. In 1998, when several lacrosse associations merged to form the group, it had a dozen employees, an annual budget of just over $1 million and 20,000 members.
Now it is 215,000 members strong, with an $11 million budget and 50 employees - all bursting at the seams of their cramped offices on University Parkway.
A site at Harbor Point wouldn't be ready for at least a few years.