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Mayoral candidates differ on plans for convention center, new arena

Mayoral candidates differ on plans for convention center, new arena
About 200 people from the real estate community attended a forum Friday morning, in which mayoral candidates discussed economic development issues. (Baltimore Sun)

The city could get a new arena — or even a downtown sports complex — depending on who voters select to be the next mayor of Baltimore.

At a forum Friday morning, five of the leading candidates took markedly different approaches when asked for their views on expanding the convention center and building a new arena.

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The question was part of session hosted by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Baltimore, Inc., which drew a largely white, business crowd of about 200 to the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Friday morning. The event was focused on economic development issues, such as property taxes, public subsidies for real estate projects and environmental regulations like the rain tax and floodplain rules.

Businessman David Warnock — who cast himself as the most "pro-business" candidate — said he would support a major overhaul of the arena, spending $100 million on renovations.

But attorney Elizabeth Embry and City Councilman Nick Mosby said the concert venue is too far gone to be worth such a massive investment.

Embry said she favors constructing an entirely new building, ideally linked to an expanded convention center. Mosby said he would look to develop similar plans.

City Councilman Carl Stokes backed the idea as well, but took it further, saying he liked the idea of a 24-hour sports complex downtown — he even mentioned relocating Pimlico race course as part of the plan.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh was less forthcoming about whether she would be a supporter.

"I think we really have to think about how we finance these projects," she said.

The city has looked for sites and developers to build a new arena for more than two decades and is weighing tax breaks on some ticket sales to keep it competitive. In 2008, four developers entered bids, but lack of financing doomed the effort.

More recently, construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who led the Whiting Turner Contracting Co., offered to find private financing for an 18,500-seat arena and hotel on the site of his Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, linked to an expanded, publicly funded convention center.

That proposal, put forward by the Greater Baltimore Committee, was estimated to cost $900 million, but it stalled after Hackerman died in 2014.

Last year, two of Baltimore's most prominent developers, David Cordish and the Paterakis family, proposed a 15,000-seat arena on Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor. Donors with ties to Cordish have given more than $60,000 to Embry.

The $450 million proposal would transform the waterfront between the Cordish Co.'s Power Plant Live and Harbor East, developed by the Paterakis family.

Baltimore officials also have discussed rebuilding on the Royal Farms Arena site. Several traveled to Providence, R.I., to look at the arena renovation there.

Tourism officials have said they are losing business because the convention center is too small, but Pugh said she thinks the city could be offering better deals.

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"We need to learn how to negotiate better in terms of getting conventions into our city," she said. "This is a very competitive environment and we need to understand that."

BOMA invited six of the major Democratic candidates to the event. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who had been confirmed, did not attend because of an emergency, organizers said.

There are about 30 people running for mayor, including Democrats, Republicans and Greens. The primary is April 26.

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