1st Mariner Arena turns 50 amid calls for its replacement

Financing still being sought for replacement arena project

  • The Beatles played the Baltimore Civic Center on Sept. 13, 1964, and the girls went wild.
The Beatles played the Baltimore Civic Center on Sept. 13, 1964,…
October 22, 2012|By Steve Kilar and Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Civic Center opened on Oct. 23, 1962, with the hometown debut of the Baltimore Clippers hockey team. This week, it celebrates the beginning of its 50th year with nine performances of "Disney on Ice."

In between, the arena has hosted the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, circuses and monster trucks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and televangelist Joel Osteen.

"The unique thing about our building: history," said Frank Remesch, the general manager of 1st Mariner Arena.

Fifty years after it opened, Baltimore's arena is among the world's top-grossing in its class. In the year ending November 2011, 1st Mariner Arena's sales were nearly $16 million, according to Billboard magazine, making it the world's seventh-highest-grossing arena that seats between 10,000 and 15,000 people.

Despite its success, 1st Mariner Arena's future is up in the air. In the next few years, it could be renamed, handed off to a new management company — or even demolished.

Three companies, including the current manager, are bidding on a city contract to run the 14,000-seat arena for up to 10 years, a deal that carries with it the naming rights. Meanwhile, planning to replace the still successful arena with a larger facility continues.

It's not the building that accounts for the arena's achievement, Remesch said. "It's Baltimore" and its diverse customer base that makes it a success, he said.

Remesch works for SMG, the Pennsylvania-based management company that acquired the management rights in 1999 to what was then called the Baltimore Arena. The management contract expires at the end of this year.

SMG and two other arena-management companies — Los Angeles-based AEG and Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Comcast-Spectacor — are bidding to run the arena for the next five years. The city's request for proposals offers whoever wins the contract the option to extend it for another five years.

"I'm really confident that we will win just because of our track record," Remesch said.

In addition to being the top-grossing U.S. venue in its size class last year, 1st Mariner Arena was also No. 1 in 2009 and in the top three in 2008 and 2010.

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau, said the statistics are a testament to SMG's management of the facility, which is smaller, older and not as up-to-date as some of its peers.

"They're doing a remarkable job. We just wonder how much better SMG could be doing with a bigger-size" arena, Noonan said.

He supports a plan floated by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Willard Hackerman, president and CEO of Towson-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. Hackerman, who did not respond to an interview request Monday, owns the Sheraton hotel near the arena.

The $900 million plan calls for the hotel, at the northwest corner of Charles and Conway streets, to be demolished and replaced by an 18,500-seat arena and a 500-room hotel. Under the plan, the convention center's east wing also would be expanded. The city would pay for the convention center expansion, while private money would build the arena and hotel.

A study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority urged further research and pointed out that private financing for such a project is unusual without the presence of a top-tier professional hockey or basketball team. The study warned, however, that an aging 1st Mariner could quickly become "functionally obsolete" and lose market share.

A memorandum of understanding is being drafted so that the Maryland Stadium Authority can continue to study plans for a new arena, hotel and expanded convention center and the project's financing. Its completion will activate $2.5 million set aside by the state to conduct a second phase of the arena study, according to the stadium authority.

"The study will help us determine the next steps and the costs," said Kaliope Parthemos, Baltimore's deputy chief of economic and neighborhood development.

Donald C. Fry, the head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the memorandum's primary parties would be the state, city and Hackerman. The memo outlines the parties' understanding of the building and financial plans, he said. The second part of the study would further examine the feasibility of constructing and paying for the arena and convention center expansion, he said.

"We were just looking to see exactly where we are with private-sector dollars," Fry said.

In March, after the release of the arena study's first part, Hackerman and the Greater Baltimore Committee suggested the area could be financed entirely with private dollars.

With construction of a new arena considered unlikely before 2016, the current facility would need to suffice for several more years.

City officials are scheduling meetings now with the three bidders for the management contract and hope to make a recommendation to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake by mid-November, Parthemos said.

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