An influential group of Baltimore business and civic leaders coalesced Friday behind a proposal to build a new downtown arena that would be connected to an expanded Convention Center as part of a large redevelopment project on the Inner Harbor parcel that includes the Sheraton Hotel.
The Greater Baltimore Committee said its board voted to study the plan. The project would replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena while adding convention space and renewing a dated wing of the Baltimore Convention Center on a site roughly bounded by Pratt, South Charles and Conway streets.
Donald C. Fry, the GBC's president, described the project as "a combined facility that would create synergy between convention center business and arena business." He said it could "reinvigorate the area from Camden Yards to the Convention Center to the Inner Harbor."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thursday that she wants to explore alternate locations for a new sports and entertainment arena, in a shift from the previous administration's proposal to raze the facility and build a new one on its current west-side site. The mayor has not endorsed the GBC concept. The city's economic development chief, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, called the idea "intriguing."
"We want to cast a bigger net out there to find out what is the best solution. We're going to talk to everybody around, including the GBC," Brodie said. As for the viability of the proposal, he said, "Life's more complicated than to say that's an obvious answer."
A plan to replace 1st Mariner Arena with a new 18,500-seat facility that was expected to cost at least $300 million stalled amid the recession. The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development arm, put out a request for arena development plans in 2008. It received four proposals to rebuild at the current site but never selected a developer.
The GBC's proposal, still in the early stages of review, would mean demolishing the Sheraton as well as all or part of the section of the Convention Center that is more than three-decades old. It also would remove a garage and surface parking lot to accommodate a new arena and more convention space.
The plan would not affect Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, which is adjacent to the Convention Center.
The Sheraton property is owned by Willard Hackerman, head of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. Fry said GBC officials have spoken with Hackerman and found him receptive to exploring the idea of a public-private partnership on an arena-convention project. Hackerman did not respond to a request for comment.
Other developers said previous site proposals also should be revisited.
Samuel Polakoff, managing director of Cormony Development, was one of the four developers whose arena proposals were under consideration. He also was part of a team that earlier proposed a new arena south of M&T Bank Stadium. That plan called for the new arena to be part of Gateway South, a proposed sports-themed office and commercial center.
"I still think Gateway South is a great location for an arena," Polakoff said.
Among the benefits of the site, he said, were its visibility, accessibility and proximity to other sports and entertainment venues. Because the tract is highly visible, Polakoff added, a developer could sell naming rights for the arena to help pay for the project.
C. William Struever, founding partner of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, was part of a team that proposed several locations, including Port Covington, Station North just north of Penn Station, land near State Center, and the site of the current arena. Struever said he would prefer that a new arena be built on the existing site because of the catalytic effect it would have on rejuvenating the area.
"An arena, done right, is far more energizing and catalytic than a football stadium or maybe even a baseball stadium" because of the number and variety of events that can be held there, he said.
Fry said the GBC idea stemmed from a growing need to stay competitive in attracting conventions, especially now that the city has invested in a 757-room hotel that caters to conventioneers — the $301 million city-owned Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, which opened next to Camden Yards in August 2008.
He said the current Convention Center, at 315,000 square feet, is at a competitive disadvantage, with some in other cities having a half-million square feet or more of exhibit space. A combined arena-convention facility would allow for shared events between the two facilities, he added.
Since an expansion in 1996 nearly tripled the size of the original Pratt Street center, the city's convention size ranking has dropped from 28th place to 70th in the nation as other cities have built bigger centers, Fry said.
"The Convention Center in its current size is much smaller than many of our competitors up and down the East Coast, and we need to expand that in the near future," Fry said. "From our initial work on this, we believe it is something that's feasible to do."
Fry said the GBC board voted Friday to move forward with an analysis of the cost and potential financing for an arena-convention center project.
On Thursday, the mayor and city economic development officials signaled a possible renewal of interest in building a new arena. Rawlings-Blake said the city would re-evaluate locations, financing and other aspects of the project.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said Friday that it would be premature to comment on "any other proposals that may be out there." When asked about the GBC vision, O'Doherty said such a large project would require additional study. "That would take time and we are not there; we're not near that in terms of making a determination."
He noted that building a new arena elsewhere would allow 1st Mariner Arena to continue to operate while construction is under way. While the arena is widely regarded as outdated, it has drawn big acts such as Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce.
"The mayor feels strongly that 1st Mariner, despite its age, has been successful, and she doesn't want to disrupt that," by building on the current site and causing the facility to go dark for several years, O'Doherty said.
Brodie said the mayor encouraged economic development officials a few months ago to not restrict the project to the current site. "That's a very smart thing to do," he said.
But some experts raised concerns about building more convention space or embarking on a project to combine the arena and convention center.
Heywood Sanders, a convention industry expert, has long criticized cities and municipalities for expanding convention centers or related hotels as a way to boost business or reverse declines, especially when the recession and convention overbuilding in the U.S. has hurt the industry.
In Baltimore, attendance for meetings, conventions and trade shows at the Convention Center fell nearly 24 percent so far this year and by nearly 28 percent in 2009, on a year over year basis, according to reports on Baltimore tourism published by Sage Policy Group Inc.
That is the trend in most large cities, according to Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Nonetheless, "more cities are concluding that the answer to underperformance is to build more," he said.
In Philadelphia, officials are completing a major expansion of the city's convention center. In Boston officials are considering a major expansion of the convention center along with an adjacent hotel. And in Washington, leaders are planning to build a major hotel adjacent to the convention center.
"City after city is expanding its convention center or building a headquarters hotel next door in the expectation that that will be the magic to get them more convention business," Sanders said. "It simply doesn't work. There is not enough demand to go around."
Klaus Philipsen, head of the ArchPlan design firm and co-chair of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said his group has not discussed the options for an arena-convention center project. But he said he's generally skeptical of concepts that expect one building to do too much.
"Anything that is trying to do everything all at once usually is a questionable solution," he said.