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Otakon to move to D.C., citing aging convention center

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Otakon, the Japanese and East Asian anime and culture convention that has drawn tens of thousands of people to Baltimore since 1999, will be held in Washington beginning in 2017, organizers announced Sunday.

In a statement, Otakon organizers attributed the move to the "state of the facilities in Baltimore and their uncertain future" and referred to imminent plans to replace the Baltimore Convention Center and the Baltimore Arena. But such plans are not yet firm.

The 20-year-old Otakon convention was held this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, drawing a reported 32,000 attendees over three days.

The Baltimore Convention Center and mayor's office did not return requests for comment Sunday.

Victor Albisharat, a spokesman for Otakorp, the Otakon organizer, said his organization was told it was "a very close and distinct possibility" that the Convention Center and Arena would be torn down and replaced and said they received "vague" information about those plans. He did not immediately know whether that information had come from city or convention center officials.

Tom Noonan, head of the tourism group Visit Baltimore, said Otakon organizers indicated they felt the fast-growing convention would soon be too large for the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon organizers also announced plans earlier this year to hold a sister convention in Las Vegas beginning in 2014.

"We put a very lucrative offer on their table, so it wasn't a financial decision," Noonan said. "They had been talking to us about how they had outgrown our facilities."

The pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee announced a couple of years ago a concept to expand the Convention Center and build a new Arena, but GBC spokesman Gene Bracken said Sunday that the idea, expected to cost $900 million, was not close to becoming reality.

"It's just a concept at this point, it's not a project yet," Bracken said. "The financing hasn't been worked out at all."

Otakon is one of the largest annual conventions Baltimore hosts. By 2017, the convention will move to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and will remain in Washington for "at least five years," Otakon organizers said. A return to Baltimore was not ruled out, but organizers said a return would have to wait until upgrades to the Baltimore Convention Center are complete.

"The Baltimore Convention Center has not aged gracefully," the Otakon statement said.

Albisharat said the Pennsylvania-based Otakorp organization "didn't want to gamble" on the uncertainty of whether the project would come to fruition.

"We need to make our own definite plans," he said.

The Greater Baltimore Committee proposal calls for a new 500-room hotel and the demolition of the existing Sheraton Hotel and a new 18,500-seat arena on the Conway Street land between the new hotel and Charles Street. It also includes a plan to demolish the east wing of the convention center and triple its size to 580,000 square feet, and connect it with the Arena.

The convention center in Washington has 700,000 square feet of exhibit space, compared to 300,000 square feet in the Baltimore Convention Center. Noonan, a supporter of the GBC proposal, said there is no firm financial plan to support it.

Bracken said it is possible the concept could be in the works by 2017, but that the GBC was still in the process of trying to raise private financing.

Under the proposal, the city would pay for the convention center expansion, while private money would build the arena and hotel. The convention center first opened in 1979 and was last renovated in 1997.

"Despite our long ties to Baltimore, we are energized and excited for the possibilities afforded by the facilities in D.C.," the Otakon statement said. "As with any move, there will be challenges and a bit of a learning curve, but we view this as an opportunity. And we look forward to seeing the results of Baltimore's planned reinvestment — with luck, we'll face another tough choice in a few years."

cwells@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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