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Baltimore Development Corp. seeks developer for Royal Farms Arena for post-coronavirus events venue

Betting on a strong recovery in the arts and entertainment sectors after the coronavirus pandemic abates, Baltimore officials are looking for developers to redesign Royal Farms Arena, the city’s largest event venue, to support that potential comeback.

The Baltimore Development Corp. said Wednesday it is issuing a call for proposals to redevelop the downtown arena.

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Plans for the redevelopment of Royal Farms Arena have surfaced — and faded — several times over the last two decades. Most recently, city and state economic development leaders rejected a proposal to build a new arena at the site of the city’s convention center, concluding that the undertaking would be too unrealistic and taxing.

Now that officials have settled on keeping the arena at its current site, Baltimore’s economic development arm is calling for design teams to submit proposals for an upgraded, state-of-the-art facility supported by private investment. The BDC only will review proposals at that site but will consider requests for renovation or new construction.

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Colin Tarbert, the BDC’s president and CEO, said the current, 15,000-seat facility has performed well given its size relative to other regional venues, but remains dated and needs to be fully modernized.

“Other arenas will have to rethink and retrofit themselves to be state-of-the-art to get people to feel comfortable post-COVID,” said Tarbert. “This is a great opportunity to start fresh.”

The ideal design team would not only “activate” the building’s exterior and make it more transparent from outside to inside, but also create a mix of seating in the arena, including more affordable options for families and club-level seating, Tarbert said. It might include an outdoor plaza.

The developer also would take over the venue’s management.

Last year, Royal Farms joined ASM Global, a newly formed venue management company. The firm was in charge of about 300 arenas and centers around the world.

Tarbert added that he’d want the new arena to draw corporate sponsors as well as serve as a catalyst for further investment in Baltimore’s downtown area. He envisions it as a large-scale arts and entertainment district with the arena centrally located to restaurants, retail, housing and other amenities.

ASM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before the coronavirus ground live entertainment and performing arts to a halt, the arena — formerly known as the Baltimore Arena or 1st Mariner Arena — had brought acts such as Rihanna and the Jonas Brothers to Baltimore and had booked Celine Dion and Pearl Jam for the first half of 2020. The venue also hosts some athletics games such as indoor soccer and boxing.

Tarbert said the arena already benefits from its close proximity to the light rail as well as Interstate 95. It’s located within close range of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and the Baltimore Convention Center, which has temporarily been turned into a coronavirus testing site and field hospital. A newly renovated Lexington Market, currently underway, soon will complement the area as well.

“We’re asking the question: Who can rebuild the arena, and who can best position it, post-pandemic, as a premier venue for Baltimore?” he said. “We think we could use this time, where there’s not a lot happening, so when we do emerge from the pandemic and economic downturn, we’ll come out much stronger and have this new facility.”

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