A step back in hopes of a leap forward

Officials say losing arena now will pay off later

July 25, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

No rumbling monster trucks crushing junkyard cars. No throngs of tweens screaming as Hannah Montana takes the stage. And no elephants stomping down Pratt Street in the springtime.

At least for a while.

If all goes according to the plans announced yesterday, the antiquated 1st Mariner Arena will be torn down and replaced with a new, larger venue. Demolition and construction could take three years, which means Baltimore could temporarily go without annual events like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice and yes, even Hannah Montana.

But officials say razing the arena would help bring more large-scale family events, concerts and maybe even a major sports team. And they're confident once the new arena opens, most of the old staples will return.

"They're going to come back," said Frank Remesch, the arena's general manager. "There's going to be a honeymoon period, so [bands] are going to want to come here. You're not going to lose anything. You might gain some."

Some events might get lost in transition, Remesch acknowledged. Smaller shows such as Sesame Street Live probably wouldn't be able to fill the newly proposed 18,500-seat space. Neither would a mid-size hip-hop draw like Lil' Wayne. But he's hopeful the gains will outweigh the losses.

"That's incredible for the city and state," he said. "It gives you civic pride. It's phenomenal to be a part of that."

In order to build that pride, the city has to be without the arena for a short time, Remesch said.

No other Baltimore venue can accommodate the circus, which means the annual elephant march won't happen here for several years, said Stephen Payne, spokesman for Feld Entertainment. Feld produces the circus and the Disney on Ice shows that come to the arena.

Both tours are booked years in advance, which makes scheduling shows before and after construction a bit of a guessing game, Payne said. But the circus and the ice shows will both be back once the new arena opens, he said.

"We want to play Baltimore," Payne said. "Since these [tours] are planned in advance, it would be difficult to know immediately when it would be done and open. It would be a planning and logistics issue."

The current arena, which opened in 1962, seats about 14,000. It has brought in teen pop rock stars the Jonas Brothers, the American Idols Live show and, occasionally, a blockbuster band like the Rolling Stones.

For its size, the arena has done well lately: Its net income from concessions and ticket sales has steadily climbed each of the past three fiscal years. Last year, the arena set an all-time record with a net income of $638,410, according to statements filed with the city's Finance Department. The arena has settled into a profitable niche, and Remesch said seeing it go will be tough. But he's excited at the idea of running a brand-new facility.

"I would love big hallways and huge concession stands and not having to watch women stand in lines for the bathroom for every event," he said.

The layout of the 18,500 seats will help determine the caliber of concerts the new arena can accommodate, Remesch said. Oval-shaped arenas must partially cordon off one section of seats to set up a stage, which cuts into capacity, he said. The current boxy layout is ideal for live music.

"We're built perfectly for it," Remesch said. "We're built great for a concert."

Regardless of the layout, a state-of-the-art arena can look pretty attractive to touring bands, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the music industry trade magazine Pollstar.

"There's no doubt that having a new building is going to be a major enhancement to Baltimore in terms of its ability to land shows," Bongiovanni said. "You live in the shadow of D.C. in some ways, but as the market continues to develop, it will be on more tour stops."

When it comes to capacity, the nearly 21,000-seat Verizon Center in Washington will still trump the planned new arena. More seats means more tickets to sell, and top-tier bands will usually opt for the area's biggest available venue. Even so, Baltimore has brought in high-caliber artists such as Prince, the Eagles and U2 in the past, said Don Wehner, a longtime promoter.

Wehner recently booked rap mogul Jay-Z in the arena. Adding about 4,000 seats to the venue won't give it much more leverage than it already has with star performers. And the number of bands that can fill a large arena is dwindling, he said.

"I don't know how much bigger you can get," Wehner said. "There are very few bands that can sell 18,000 tickets these days. You can count them on one hand - maybe two."

Still, the new arena is a move in the right direction, Remesch said. A 20,000-seat venue would be too big for the family-oriented events from which the current arena profits. An 18,500-seat arena makes more sense for Baltimore, and the new arena should more than make up for three years without one, he said.

"In life, when you cut your arm, you need stiches," Remesch said. "Stitches hurt, but that's the only way it heals. ... It sounds corny, but you have to take a couple steps back to take a leap forward."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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