Baltimore is not a `never' land

December 09, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

I think the "never people" are shortsighted, all wet and past their prime. The never people are the ones who enjoy saying "never." They construct sentences around the word and connect it frequently to Baltimore: Baltimore will never this and never that. Baltimore will never have an NBA team or an NHL team, or a population of 850,000 again. I don't have much time for never people anymore.

They're decent people, a lot of them, but they're just not much fun, and I think they suffer from some kind of weird inferiority thing that can be contagious.

So that's why, pondering the future and all recent proposals for a new civic arena in Baltimore, I stopped thinking in a minor-league way, which is how too many members of the business community and the sports-talk culture think. Their heads are in Neverland.

Some suits issued a report last spring saying the city needs a new arena, but one of modest size, the assumption being that Baltimore will never have another major sports franchise because we're stuck between Washington and Philadelphia and that's that.

I conceded the point and wrote a column in May saying we should construct a new arena for minor-league sports on the fringe of the city. I said we should settle for anything at this point. Bring on the East Coast Hockey League!

But I've changed my mind - I mean, I have really changed my mind.

Never-think is insidious. It creeps up on you. It infests.

I'm not going there anymore.

So-called experts tell Baltimore repeatedly that it will have to settle for the NFL Ravens and the MLB Orioles, and we'll never see an NBA or NHL team put down roots here.

As if anything in the modern world of professional sports is static.

As if teams do not move.

As if communities do not grow and prosper.

As if people with money, brains and ambition do not come together, every now and then, to orchestrate something grand.

Big-think is what led the state and city to set a standard for the modern, downtown sports complex with Camden Yards. You can even find big-think in the original Civic Center, now 1st Mariner Arena. It was poorly designed - some say obsolete the day it opened - but at least city leaders planted it in a downtown location. And they did so in the early 1960s when the city was steadily losing its manufacturing base and its white population. Building the arena along West Baltimore Street at that time constituted defiance against trends and a bold statement about the future.

It is still a great location. It still makes a statement.

We should build a new arena - on its present site or somewhere downtown - and this time we should get it right: Make the place architecturally stunning and big enough for a major sports anchor, Top 10 concerts and touring shows.

Someone - the governor, the mayor, a business leader who never says never - should pull together our brightest stars and most influential people to promote the new arena as an exciting new venue for sports and entertainment.

Get Cal Ripken in on this; he likes basketball. Pull in Muggsy Bogues, the mayor's nephew Juan Dixon, Reggie Williams and Carmelo Anthony, too. Call on Will Smith and his wife, the actress and singer Jada Pinkett Smith, a Baltimore native; they've given plenty to the community already and shown interest in investing here on a large scale. Build an Olympic-size pool in the base of the new arena, and bring Michael Phelps back to town to promote it as a site for national swimming trials. Dorothy Hamill and Kimmie Meissner should be summoned to lend their stature in figure skating to the place; they could establish an international competition and ice show here.

The argument that Baltimore can't support another major sports franchise - or maybe even two - is bogus. If someone puts up the money to bring the NBA or NHL here, great treasure and legacy await them in a downtown of the future that will be exciting, busy and brimming with a new generation of Baltimoreans.

As of 2007, the city population was more than 640,000. With the price of gasoline going nowhere but up and affordable housing in the suburbs scarce, those now in grade school, high school or college will look to the city as a place to live. In time, the city can stand to gain 200,000 residents.

The Maryland Department of Planning says the Baltimore metro area could gain more than 200,000 new jobs during the next 25 years. We rank eighth nationally in per capita income and eighth in private-sector employment growth since 2000, according to the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

Recently, Morgan Stanley announced plans to add 900 employees in 10 years to a downtown business division, while T. Rowe Price announced 1,400 new jobs and an expansion of its Owings Mills campus. The Baltimore Business Journal reported Friday that Under Armour plans to nearly double its local work force during the next four years as part of an expansion near its Tide Point headquarters.

Under Armour remains one of the nation's most successful sports-apparel companies. By the time we build a new arena, CEO Kevin Plank will be able to afford to buy the naming rights - the Under Armour Center.

Never happen?

Never say never.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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