Arena dreams

Our view: Proposed designs for a new arena sound intriguing, but financing is key

December 29, 2008

The proposals for a new Baltimore arena envision a sporting and entertainment venue unlike any in the city: a seven-screen movie theater, a rooftop park, a 1,000-seat concert hall, hotels and, of course, an 18,500-seat sports arena in combination with some or all of the above.

But what's missing is any reasonable idea of who's going to pay to build a $300 million-plus complex in this economy, and without that element, the arena proposals remain little more than grand dreams of a re-imagined civic center.

Private financing for the project is critical to its construction because the city and the state can't afford to do it on their own. Nor should they be the primary financial backer, not in this economic climate. Four development proposals were unveiled last week, and each included a proposed financing scheme, but they remain confidential. The Baltimore Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, will rely on a team of consultants to help review the financing plans. BDC officials have encouraged developers to be "creative," which could involve naming rights to the arena and possibly exclusive rights to brand-name foods sold at concessions.

But these proposals won't be reviewed until early in the new year with a decision on the winning developer not expected before mid-2009.

Because of the recession, more time may work in the city's favor. Baltimore needs a spiffier, more versatile arena on West Baltimore Street. Replacing the aging facility that's there would complement the redevelopment already under way on the west side of downtown and provide a bridge from this revival of Baltimore's former shopping district and the Inner Harbor. A multiuse arena could capitalize on the 1st Mariner Arena's successes with family entertainment and expand its concert programming. Supporters of a larger facility - the proposals so far add about 4,500 seats to the present site - hold out hope that a bigger new arena would lure another professional sports team to Charm City.

But that's wishful thinking right now, especially as professional sports leagues cope with the downturn and corporate sponsors feel the recession hit. Attendance at professional baseball games was down this season for the first time in four years, and the National Football League announced layoffs last week.

For now, fans of Disney on Ice, the Baltimore Blast and Motley Crue should resign themselves to spending the next couple of years in the arena's worn but coveted seats.

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