NBA not returning is major disappointment

Commentary

May 17, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

The NBA - and the NHL, for that matter - is never coming to Baltimore. That conclusion is as definitive as the one that came from the long-awaited, well-funded feasibility study on the downtown arena project earlier this week: that the current arena is, in layman's terms, a dump.

It didn't have to be that way. We didn't have to have a fossil masquerading as our signature indoor entertainment venue in 2007. And we didn't have to eliminate ourselves as the home of a major indoor winter sports franchise.

One of the great basketball towns in America didn't have to get stuck without an NBA team for the foreseeable future.

But now, 45 years after the former Civic Center opened, 40 years after it started showing its age and 34 years after the Bullets moved out of town, Baltimore is stuck. All the chances the city and state had to upgrade, improve or replace the relic now known as 1st Mariner Arena were wasted or allowed to float by. The window of opportunity is closed for a building that the city deserves and that an NBA franchise would covet.

You can't blame the supporters of the new arena push for that, and it's too late to point fingers at the names and faces who blew it in past years. All we can do is live with the consequences, harsh as they are to admit, especially with this town and the chip it perpetually has on its shoulder:

We're minor league.

Now put down the purple Kool-Aid and sip on that for a minute.

The report released Monday, commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority and various city and state business organizations, puts it down in black and white. It's not that nobody wants the NBA here. It's that now, as opposed to possibly several years ago, it's physically and economically impractical.

"I love basketball. I stay up for the [NBA playoff] games," Ed Hale, CEO of 1st Mariner Bank, owner of the Blast and extremely interested arena investor, said yesterday. "And I watch hockey. I'm a sports junkie, I make no bones about it. I think Baltimore is a world-class city, and that [a big-time arena] is the only thing that's lacking.

"But building one that an NBA or NHL team can play in, it's not going to happen. It can't. There's just not enough money to put into it."

There's no one super-mega owner who can afford the extra $100 million to turn the proposed 15,000-to-16,000-seat, $162 million building into one that's NBA-ready. No one who can assure that 10 times as many luxury suites can be sold. No list of major local corporations lining up to spend on the franchise.

And, worst of all, no more time to create the environment in which any of that might come true soon.

"If the city has to wait around for the right conditions for an NBA team to come here, the arena will continue to be more and more obsolete," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. Continuing to prop up 1st Mariner until then, he added, simply isn't an option.

Which means, not to beat the term into the ground, we are resigned to being minor league.

"I agree. It's tough for me to swallow," Fowler said. "I think Baltimore should always shoot for the stars. But if we shoot for the stars, we'd have to wait another 10 to 15 years, and we can't wait. Nobody's going to commit to a building [at NBA capacity] on speculation."

Too bad nobody 30, 20 or 10 years ago thought enough about Baltimore and its fans to shoot for the stars.

The report mentions previous studies on a new arena, and there definitely were ideas thrown around in the mid-to-late 1990s about a 20,000-seat venue in the area that is now home to the baseball and football stadiums.

There might very well have been a Verizon Center-like arena built there, home to the prodigal Baltimore Bullets, and still a row of abandoned buildings near Chinatown in D.C. where Verizon stands now.

Why it ended up not happening remains hazy. We do know that enough money and civic punch were available in the past 15 years to build state-of-the-art facilities to keep and lure big league teams.

As fortunate as the city is to have baseball and the NFL - especially with the direct competition in both sports just 40 miles away - bringing the NBA back would have completed the set and returned Baltimore to its former status, big league all around. Now, it's merely almost there.

But there's no need crying over spilled nachos. Few cities do neglect as well as Baltimore, so why should its big league winter sports fans be treated differently?

Now, they'll just have to be satisfied with arena football, D-league basketball, minor league hockey and the like. Which, considering the current alternative, isn't bad. It would be rude to turn one's nose up at the boost a new arena is going to give to whatever neighborhood gets it, whether it's downtown, Canton, the Westside or elsewhere.

None of this is meant to sound ungrateful for the positive move recommended by the arena story.

It's just that with a little foresight by their predecessors, this could have been a major league move. Now, it's too late. And too minor.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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