1st Mariner Arena turns 50 amid calls for its replacement

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, and the girls went wild.

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.

The city's Bureau of Purchases decided to combine the naming rights with the advertising and management contract because it "made for a more efficient process," she said.

In June, the city's Board of Estimates approved a six-month extension of naming rights for 1st Mariner Arena. Arena Ventures LLC, run by former 1st Mariner Bank CEO Ed Hale, has paid $75,000 a year since 2002 to keep the bank's name in lights on the side of arena.

1st Mariner would be happy to entertain the idea of keeping its name on the walls of the arena, said Dennis Finnegan, the bank's executive vice president. "It's been a good relationship," he said.

It was Hale who suggested the city allow the Baltimore Arena's naming rights to be sold, he said.

Hale's indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast, has been a primary tenant of the arena since the early 1980s. The arena also has been home to indoor lacrosse and lingerie football teams, and is a popular stop for professional wrestling tours.

While luring an NBA or NHL team to Baltimore remains unlikely because of the proximity of teams in Washington and Philadelphia, the March study suggested a new facility could draw one-time or infrequently occurring events such as NCAA tournaments or Olympic qualifiers.

But there will always be those who hope for a home team to root for between the end of the Ravens' season and the beginning of baseball in the spring.

Howie Lewis remembers his first arena visit to watch hockey back in 1988. Even then the arena felt cramped and old, he said, with too many obstructed-view seats. But that wasn't that unusual for minor-league arenas at the time.

Now, however, teams in smaller markets boast updated facilities. Lewis, a member of the Baltimore Bandits Booster Club, has season tickets for the Hershey Bears, a minor-league hockey team whose gleaming 10-year-old arena makes 1st Mariner seem antiquated and inadequate.

Lewis said he believes a small, ardent fan base for hockey remains in Baltimore, and the city could again host a team in hockey's top minor league, the American Hockey League. The Clippers (1962-76), Skipjacks (1982-93) and Bandits (1995-97) had intermittent success, but Lewis feels the addition of teams in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Norfolk, Va., has increased awareness of minor-league hockey.

"All people could talk about was whether Baltimore would get another team," said Lewis, who recently gathered with hundreds of other die-hard AHL fans in Cleveland. "It just makes so much sense. But it's only going to happen if they get a new building."



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