Quit thinking small, people of Baltimore

Good Idea

July 25, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

As for the nattering negativists who will surely say this is a dumb idea, that it will never work, that Baltimore will never get this and never get that - well, blah, blah, blah. We've heard it all before. Mr. Grumpy-Gills really should treat himself to the big picture sometime. I know. It's hard. You've grown accustomed to thinking weenie and being cynical. After all, that's part of our national culture, and the condition has long been acute here in Baltimore, where the only thing we've had to "celebrate" lately was the Orioles' win in the World Series - 25 years ago.

But, really, the many of you who think small, and who make a hobby of ridiculing Baltimore and taking glee at the city's flaws, you who today think building a big, new arena on the site of our old, dumpy-but-still-bookin'-dates one is a foolish idea - you really need to get out more.

Seriously, the city has changed and is continuing to change. News flash: It's getting better. You should swear off blog entries, power down your PCs and get out of your basements for a day. Take a walk downtown.

It's not hard to imagine, in the midst of all the activity already there, Baltimore with a new sports arena, a couple of blocks from Camden Yards and the baseball park that's still the envy of the nation. Imagine a festival atmosphere all through downtown, from Canton to Inner Harbor East to the Inner Harbor to the west side, up to Lexington Market, and across MLK Boulevard. Imagine the streets filled night and day with people, and an architecturally exciting, solar-powered arena, right on the light rail line - and near a new cross-town Red Line - painted in amazing colors and light.

Go ahead. It won't kill you to think big for a change. Don't worry about the parking. They'll figure out the parking. I used to think the new arena belonged out by the interstate, in fabulous Haleville, on the outer edge of Canton. But downtown, along the public transit lines, is where an arena for the next 100 years belongs, in the heart of the city - not isolated in a place that makes it convenient for thousands of people in cars, trucks and SUVs.

Obviously, a new arena is not the city's most pressing need - getting more kids to graduate from high school is. But a new arena is symbolically huge. It expresses great hope for the future. It says we're truly a big-league town.

Of course, some argue that Baltimore will never get an NBA team or an NHL franchise, and that Baltimore doesn't have an available billionaire to form an ownership group. That's all part of grumpy never-think, and we hear it around here all the time. The more it is repeated, the more it is believed. This lame mindset assumes that modern professional sports is a static, flat-line industry, with teams stuck in place forever and owners never considering greener pastures. It also assumes that new, entrepreneurial money can't emerge at any time to take advantage of an opportunity. (Ask yourself: Did you ever hear of Steve Bisciotti before he stepped out of the corporate shadows to buy an interest in the Ravens? Would it be so hard to imagine the Under-Armour Center where the First Mariner Arena is now?)

Never-thinkers assume the city's population won't grow adequately to support three sports franchises. That's hooey. The supply and price of crude oil and global warming is going to drive a new generation of men and women into the city for work, jobs and play. Baby boomers are going to retire and move here for the convenience and social life.

After decades of decline, Baltimore's population grew last year. The Maryland Department of Planning says the Baltimore metropolitan 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.

The grumps who opposed the city's investment in a $301 million convention headquarters hotel should take note: The hotel opens next month, and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association says it has booked 451,608 room nights in city hotels through 2017. That's a record.

We're only limited by our imaginations here. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Stop thinking small ball, Smalltimore.

You want an NBA franchise? Here's my advice, again: Get Cal Ripken involved. He loves hoops. Get Muggsy Bogues, the mayor's nephew Juan Dixon, Reggie Williams and Carmelo Anthony, too. Will Smith and his wife, the actress and singer Jada Pinkett Smith, a Baltimore native, apparently remain interested in investing here.

It is not crazy for a developer to consider building an Olympic-size pool in the basement of the new arena and bringing Michael Phelps back to town to promote it as a site for training and for national swimming trials. Dorothy Hamill and Kimmie Meissner could establish an international figure skating competition here.

Enough of never-think. It assumes that Baltimore can't grow and can't control its own destiny by doing something bold and exciting like turning an uninteresting industrial waterfront into a tourist destination, or transforming a rail yard and brick warehouse into a fabulous sports venue, or tearing down an old, dumpy-but-still-bookin'-dates arena and building an amazing new one.

Let's roll.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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