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ESPN Zone in Baltimore closing

It was the final last call for ESPN Zone Baltimore.

After a dozen years serving up burgers, brews and chicken wings to fans absorbed in sports on big-screen TVs, the chain's original location at the Inner Harbor closed for good Tuesday at midnight, a casualty of fierce competition, waning popularity and the recession.

The chain's owner, Walt Disney Co. announced the decision last week to close five of its sports-themed restaurants, including Baltimore's, and blamed the battered economy. The company also closed venues in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Washington but kept open sites in Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calif.

The first ESPN Zone opened 12 years ago as a key anchor of the redeveloped Power Plant, an experiment of sorts for Disney as it sought to blend the ESPN brand with sports-bar dining and arcade-style entertainment.

On Tuesday, the message on red neon ticker signs that normally flash sports news around the dining and retail areas read: "Thank you Baltimore for 12 great years." A handwritten sign outside the ESPN merchandise store indicated big savings: 70 percent off everything. Customers rifled through nearly empty racks and shelves and lined up to buy T-shirts and hats.

One customer, Tony Kennedy, picked up a baseball hat with "ESPN Zone" stitched on the front, and on the back, "Baltimore."

"This will be a collector's item, I guarantee it," said Kennedy, who went to the Inner Harbor for a business meeting and decided to eat lunch for the last time at ESPN Zone. "This is a heavy hit for Baltimore. This is the ESPN generation."

Yet Kennedy, whose company, Extra Point Productions, organizes the I-95 Kickoff Classic high school football event, said he hadn't been to the restaurant since the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001. Other chains with similar offerings have cropped up closer to his home in Bowie, and he came to consider ESPN Zone more of a tourist attraction.

Analysts say growing competition among sports-bar restaurants caused Disney's concept to lose momentum in recent years — as the casual dining sector in the U.S. has grappled with a drop in the number of people eating out. Sales at casual dining locations open at least one year have fallen during each of the past two years, including more than 4 percent in 2009, said Steve West, a restaurant analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

In contrast, business at ESPN Zone appeared to be steady by midday Tuesday, a mix of business people in suits watching TV, mothers with strollers eating lunch, and eighth-graders on a class trip from New Jersey playing virtual soccer and riding virtual wave runners in the arcade.

In a dining area with tiered seating overlooking a wall of televisions and one massive screen, Sara Baldwin, 26, curled up in a cushioned recliner with a menu, settling in for World Cup soccer coverage.

"I'm surprised that Disney's decision to close came in the middle of the biggest sporting event in the world," said Baldwin, who often stops in ESPN Zone after work next door at Barnes & Noble to eat and catch a game. "The big TV is very nice, and the lounge chairs are great. It seems like it was always busy over here. It was kind of a shock."

Asked where she planned to watch the rest of the soccer tournament and other sports, Baldwin said, "I do have ESPN at home. I guess I'll just watch at home."

Once the customers are gone, that leaves all the stuff. Rick Alessandri, a senior vice president for ESPN, said the company was still working on a plan for the memorabilia and quirky sports artifacts scattered throughout the dining and bar areas in Baltimore and the four other locations.

"Once the doors are closed, we will have a very comprehensive and detailed disposition plan," Alessandri said. "It takes into account everything from how to disperse the kitchen equipment to glassware to memorabilia."

Memorabilia will most likely be showcased at ESPN corporate campuses in Connecticut, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York or at the two remaining ESPN Zone restaurants in California, he said. Though some items may be auctioned off in charitable events, ESPN has no plans to conduct a general public auction.

One employee, Jerome Tate, never tired of showing off stuff you'd never see anywhere else, such as former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson's autographed cleat and autographed jersey, or the huge canvas modeled after a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence but instead featuring the likenesses of Baltimore sports greats Art Donovan, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

Then there's the tribute to several Baltimore Bullets basketball players, whose names cover an oversized rotating basketball floating atop an oversized hoop, and the giant Etch-a-Sketch depicting Cal Ripken Jr. as he broke the consecutive games played record.

"I wonder what they will do with all this stuff," said Tate, who worked at ESPN Zone in Baltimore for five years and said he often stayed after work to eat dinner and watch a game. "If a sport is going on, one of these TVs will have it on."

The Baltimore restaurant has about 140 employees who will receive severance, including extended medical benefits and career consultation services. Many decided to come in on the last day even though they weren't scheduled to work, said ESPN Zone's regional marketing manager, Leigh Friedman.

"It's become like a family," Friedman said. "People are coming in to enjoy one last day working with their friends."

Officials with the Cordish Cos., ESPN Zone's landlord and the developer of the Power Plant, which also houses a Hard Rock Cafe and Barnes & Noble, said last week they have been fielding inquiries from potential tenants and plan to replace ESPN Zone with another big draw.

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