A road trip, a new arena

January 03, 2008

Apanel of city and civic leaders who will evaluate proposals to replace Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena is planning a road trip. The destination is Kansas City, Mo., and its swank new 19,000-seat arena. It's a trip worth making because the Sprint Center is all that a new arena could offer Baltimore - but it's also a study in very creative financing, stiff political challenges, key personal relationships and the debatable need for a pro sports team as its anchor.

Many of those elements apply to the debate in Baltimore, and others may show why Kansas City's experience can't be replicated here. When the $276 million Sprint Center opened in October, Elton John was the sold-out headliner in a space that boasts 72 executive suites, six locker rooms, capacity for multiple events and other attractions.

No professional sports team is based there - yet. How well the Sprint Center does without a pro team in the house may well influence the decision on the size of a new arena in Baltimore. But the two cities draw from different areas, and their respective proximity to other cities should be a key point on the advisory panel's checklist as its members tour Kansas City. A 19,000-seat arena may fit Kansas City's needs but be a reach in Baltimore.

That's not to say Baltimore can't draw big names or big audiences. It has done both, with appearances by Beyonce, the Rolling Stones, evangelist Joel Osteen and Hannah Montana. But the advisory panel must view the Sprint Center for the possibilities it presents for Baltimore, not as an exact template.

For example, Baltimore can't afford to finance a new arena on its own, and no one should expect too much from the state, given its fiscal woes. Kansas City faced similar concerns. It ended up issuing $222 million in bonds to build the Sprint Center, then won voter approval for increases in hotel and rental car fees to pay the debt service. The city also received $53.2 million from the Anschutz Entertainment Group in exchange for a 35-year operating contract in which AEG keeps most of the profits.

AEG Worldwide also is part of a group that wants to build Baltimore's new arena, one of seven interested in the project.

As it heads west, the advisory panel should know that an arena project worth supporting in Baltimore will have to be downtown and near mass transit - and built, for the most part, by the private sector.

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