Intriguing plans for a hybrid arena and convention center

Two uses in one building

November 16, 2010

The proposal to combine a new downtown arena with an expanded Baltimore Convention Center merits serious consideration.

If it works, this newly constructed hybrid would both replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena — now a site of concerts and sporting events — and add space and allure to the city's convention business.

The plan got an enthusiastic initial response recently from the Greater Baltimore Committee, which said it would study the proposal. This new idea makes more sense than the previous, $300 million idea, now abandoned, to level the old arena a build a new one on that site.

As outlined, the plan calls for knocking down the original convention center, built in 1979, and replacing it with a four-story, multipurpose building. The new structure would house an 18,500-seat arena that would be ringed with shops, restaurants and movie theaters. This building would also provide space for convention center functions and would be linked to nearby hotels. The combined arena-convention facility would add about 700,000 square feet of new exhibit and meeting space, a level that convention officials say is needed to stay competitive with centers in comparable cities.

The hybrid approach — using a large arena to hold massive meeting of conventioneers during the day and sporting events or concerts at night — is already being employed in Indianapolis and Atlanta.

There are several things to like about this proposed arena. One is its downtown location, near mass transit lines and the Inner Harbor. This makes it easy to access and adds vitality to a core part of the city that needs a boost. Another is that with a little rearranging (moving a Sheraton hotel a block or so West on Conway Street), the project does not require acquiring additional, expensive, downtown real estate. Finally, it would allow the 1st Mariner Arena to continue to draw concerts and other entertainment to town while construction at the new arena was under way.

There are some unresolved questions, chief among them how such a project would be funded. Another concern is whether a new and improved facility could turn around slumping attendance at the convention center. Baltimore tourism officials say it would, arguing that the expansion would allow officials to book two conventions at the same time, something the limited size of the facility now prohibits. They contend that room nights — how many hotel rooms a convention fills up — are a better measure of economic activity than convention center attendance, and room nights are on the rise.

Appealing as this concept is, it needs to be debated and dissected by taxpayers as well as business and civic leaders, a process that is now happening.

If the hybrid arena proves to be a good model for Baltimore, its construction will almost certainly have to be backed by private financing. The city's cupboards are bare. But as the successes of the Camden Yards stadiums have shown, drawing thousands of cash-carrying fans into downtown can be good for the city.

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