City and state economic development leaders have concluded that a plan to build a replacement for Royal Farms Arena on the site of the Baltimore Convention Center is too ambitious and complicated to be realistic.
A group of officials evaluating options for convention center expansion decided that including an arena in the project is “not recommended” because of “significant operational and construction related challenges,” Michael Frenz, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s executive director, told Mayor Catherine Pugh in a letter Friday.
Such a project — squeezing new convention space, an arena and a new 500-room hotel along West Pratt, South Charles and Conway streets downtown — was expected to take as long as six years to design and build, according to a report the stadium authority also released Friday.
“It is simply not feasible to include that much programming in that small footprint,” said Bill Cole, executive director of the Baltimore Development Corp.
But the stadium authority is advancing a proposal to build a second convention center hotel, in part because even without an arena in the design, convention center expansion would likely require taking over the footprint of the nearby Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel at Conway and South Charles streets.
Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Baltimore, said that proposal could spur growth in the city’s convention business, which has lost some major meetings because groups have outgrown the existing convention center space and downtown hotels.
“We started to lose a percentage of our business that’s going elsewhere because they’ve outgrown our existing building,” he said. “Our building is pretty much at max capacity when it’s compared to other competitive cities.”
The recommendations come at the end of a process studying the feasibility of convention center expansion and the possible inclusion of a hotel and arena. The stadium authority had commissioned an architectural and design study to evaluate options to grow the convention center and help Baltimore compete with cities along the East Coast and across the country for tourism and convention business.
The study lays out a range of proposals, even the most conservative of which would take at least four years to complete and add hundreds of thousands of square feet of exhibition and meeting space. The most complicated plan architects and designers analyzed would include a 500-room hotel and an arena with seating for as many as 17,500 people.
All scenarios that were studied call for demolition of the convention center’s aged East Building, bounded by Pratt, Sharp and Charles streets, and also suggests the convention center would need to take over the footprint of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel at Conway and Charles streets to make room for adequate convention exhibition space.
The analysis doesn’t estimate price tags for the various options, but says a new arena would require significant private investment. The next step in the process will explore costs of the options under consideration.
Pugh said in a statement that investment in the convention center — and another aged city property, Pimlico Race Course — are “top priorities.”
“I’m committed to ensuring that these important city venues are fully able to accommodate the increased demand for high quality sporting, leisure and business experiences,” she said. “Baltimore needs to stay competitive and investing in these anchor facilities will undoubtedly prove an investment in our future.”
Pugh spokesman Greg Tucker called talk of replacing the arena “another discussion at some point.”
The idea of a renovated convention center combined with an arena and hotel originated in 2011, when construction magnate Willard Hackerman floated a $900 million proposal and offered his investment. But that initiative stalled after Hackerman died in 2014.
The report released Friday was aimed at exploring the feasibility and the logistics of reviving such an idea.
The Maryland Stadium Authority commissioned the $460,000 study in May 2017, and tapped a team that included Ayers Saint Gross, a Baltimore design firm; LMN Architects of Seattle; Clark Construction of Bethesda; Populous, a Kansas City firm that designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards; and Perkins Eastman, a New York-based design firm.
The report calls for expanding convention center square footage from 1.2 million to 1.7 million, including an increase in exhibit space from 300,000 square feet to at least 400,000 square feet. The oldest portion of the convention center, the East Building, opened in 1979; the center expanded into its West Building between Sharp and Howard streets in 1997.
It suggests replacing the 337-room Sheraton with a 500-room hotel that would be the second one connected to the convention center. The other, the 757-room, city-owned Hilton convention center hotel, opened in 2008.
The study also explored construction of a 565,000-square-foot arena with room for at least 13,000 seats, depending on configuration. The Royal Farms Arena opened in 1962 and seats 12,000 to 14,000 people, depending on the event.
With the convention center site ruled out as a place for a new arena, a decades-long effort to replace what was originally known as the Baltimore Civic Center continues. In 2008, four developers responded to a request for proposals, but lack of financing doomed that effort. In 2015, developer the Cordish Cos. floated the idea of building an arena across Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor.
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But none of the ideas has come close to fruition.
“Additional work will have to be done over the next several years to determine whether or not there is any viable arena project,” Cole said. “Right now there’s nothing on the table.”
A new convention center hotel would be needed to replace the Sheraton should the city look to extend a new East Building across the hotel’s footprint. But economic development leaders said they also hope the increased convention space would spur demand for additional rooms.
Baltimore has seen an exodus of larger conventions in recent years because they were, in a way, too successful for the city, Hutchinson said. That includes Otakon, a celebration of anime and other Asian pop culture that moved to Washington last year, and annual meetings of natural products vendors, athletic trainers and human geneticists, he said.
Many of those conventions had started to take up rooms well outside of downtown, but providing more space close to the convention center could help the city attract some of those bigger groups.
“Those are ideal groups based on attendance and the time of year they’re meeting,” he said. “Those are the type groups we want to continue to grow here.”
City leaders made similar arguments as they used $300 million in city bonds to build the Hilton. That public-private partnership was expected to provide millions for the city’s budget each year, but the hotel posted a string of losses until last year, when it posted its first profit, $1.3 million.