If we build it, will they come?

Bigger facility, biggest events

New Arena

July 25, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

State and city leaders unveiled plans yesterday to tear down the aging 1st Mariner Arena and replace it with a new venue big enough to attract a professional basketball or hockey team to Baltimore - an idea that drew a skeptical response from the sports world.

Calling the 46-year-old 1st Mariner Arena "functionally obsolete," officials said a new 18,500-seat facility would draw the biggest concerts and acts to Baltimore and could play host to major events such as the NCAA basketball tournament. A new arena would probably cost $300 million or more, paid for largely with public money, and could open as soon as 2012.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon chose to put the new venue on the site of the current arena because of its proximity to the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore Convention Center and transit lines, and said they believe it would anchor the revitalization of downtown's west side. They rejected alternative sites in Canton, on the South Baltimore waterfront and in struggling neighborhoods that need an economic boost.

The National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association have no plans to expand or relocate any of their franchises, but city and state officials said they would build an arena even without a commitment from a professional sports team. Previous state policy called for attracting a franchise before building a sports venue, but city officials said this project would thrive even without a team.

"We need a state-of-the-art arena because whether we have a major-league team in Baltimore playing basketball or shooting hockey pucks, this is a major-league city and it deserves a major-league arena," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and head of a panel formed to evaluate arena options. The panel issued its recommendations yesterday with the support of the mayor and the governor.

Brodie said the city should think big, which it doesn't always do. "Sometimes we're a little pessimistic about the city," he said.

But experts say it is unlikely that Baltimore could lure another professional team and that the city would have trouble finding enough corporations to buy luxury seating, which teams depend on for a large part of their revenue.

A large arena would rarely sell out and would feel cold and impersonal when only half-full, experts said.

Brodie batted away such concerns yesterday. Instead, his plans for the new arena are a study in optimism. It would be 4,500 seats larger than the 14,000-capacity 1st Mariner Arena and include retail space on the ground level to connect the developing west side with downtown. Brodie said the city could sell the air rights above the arena - meaning that condominiums or offices could rise above it.

The city will soon put out a formal request for proposals, inviting developers to submit plans for the new arena. Those plans will be due by this fall, and a developer will probably be selected next year. Demolition of 1st Mariner, believed to be the oldest functioning arena in the country, would begin in 2010. Construction of the new facility would take two to three years, forcing ice shows, circuses and sports teams to find new sites during the construction.

A major question to be resolved is how the arena would be paid for. Brodie said there should be "major private-sector involvement" through the sale of naming rights and other opportunities, and that the city and state "should not be asked to write a check." But without the commitment of an NBA or NHL team to occupy the arena, significant public financing would be essential.

O'Malley said the state would step up to help the city pay for it.

"Whether there's a professional team or not ... I think the arena in and of itself is such an attraction, with all the other variety of shows that come here and the circus and everything else, it's definitely worth the investment," O'Malley said.

Neither the city nor the state is actively pursuing a hockey or basketball franchise, but the state is moving to set up a Maryland Sports Commission to market existing venues for special events, such as the Army-Navy football game. That commission could work on attracting the NBA and the NHL, the state said.

NBA commissioner David Stern said this year that many owners believe that relocation is an option when cities fail to support a team. The Sonics recently finalized a move to Oklahoma City after Seattle rejected construction of a new arena. Nashville, New Orleans and Oklahoma City built arenas between 1996 and 2002 without commitments from major-league teams and subsequently attracted NHL or NBA franchises.

Kansas City opened a new arena last fall in hopes of attracting a franchise but has failed to lure one so far. The city's Sprint Center has managed to attract large concert acts such as Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen and once-a-year sporting events such as the NCAA basketball tournament.

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