Arena tests city's will to go big league

The Baltimore Sun

The decision to build a new arena - where it should be, how big it should be, and what it becomes known for - represents a choice about the city's future: Is Baltimore going to remain a midlevel city with midlevel ambitions and feeble self-esteem, or will it become bigger, bolder and totally major-league?

This whole business of the new arena is a symbolic test of the desire of Baltimoreans to snap out of 40 years of mostly small-think with an aggressive push to a robust urban future that probably none of us can imagine right now.

I'm not just talkin' sports. I'm talking about that certain something - an X factor - that separates the great places from the just-OK places. I've said this before: Baltimore is probably the greatest half-city in America. Becoming the greatest city in America is going to take a lot more work.

We all know the usual litany of chores: Break the cycle of poverty and drug addiction, stop the killing, improve the public schools, encourage more investment to spur job growth, redevelop long stretches of the city that were abandoned over five decades of flight and population loss.

And build a new arena.

I'm fascinated with this subject because it represents so many aspects of Baltimore's municipal culture, history and quirky personality.

When I arrived here, just 15 years after the Civic Center's opening, all I heard about the place was how poorly it had been designed, that it didn't have enough seats, that it had a stage on one end (where the Beatles performed in 1964), that it wasn't good enough to keep the NBA Bullets here, and that it was in a foreboding part of town that no one wanted to visit.

But Baltimoreans went there anyway - to concerts, hockey games, circus and ice shows, religious revivals, professional wrestling matches, graduations, indoor soccer matches and dare-to-be-great seminars. I've been there when the place was packed; I've been there when the house was pathetic.

Thirty years after the arena opened, we built a new baseball stadium just a few blocks away, and Baltimore became the talk of the sports nation for it. We added a complementary football stadium a few years later, and the team that played there won a Super Bowl.

The sports complex took a big bite out of our inferiority complex. For all the arguing we did about the expenditure at Camden Yards, there would be no major league baseball and no NFL here without it.

But the arena remained - like an old station wagon that ran just well enough that we couldn't justify dumping it for something more attractive.

Three decades of robust sports expansion took place across the nation, and you hardly heard a whisper about Baltimore getting in on the action. The talk was stubbornly defeatist: We don't have enough corporate money to support a new arena. No one wants to go downtown. We'll never - ever - again have an NBA or NHL, or even AHL, team.

Just a few months ago, a report came out saying Baltimore should build a modest arena, just big enough for minor-league sports, because there's no need - and no hope - for the 18,000 to 20,000 seats that an NBA or NHL franchise would require.

I agreed, right here in this space, because I'd grown sick of this long civic conversation and I wanted to see something happen. Build a new arena in Haleville (First Mariner Bank CEO Ed Hale's stretch of Southeast Baltimore), I said, because it's conveniently located near the interstate. Let's get a minor-league hockey team, an arena football franchise, and feel thankful.

But not so fast ... and hold all tickets, my fellow Patapscovians. Suddenly other developers, besides Hale, have proposed an arena in other parts of town - each with its own exciting promise - and some say that it would be shortsighted to close the door to major sports franchises moving here.

What do you know? Big-think where we didn't expect it!

I like how it sounds and believe it's the correct approach. City leaders need to present the arena project as grand symbolism about the future.

The population of Baltimore is going to continue to grow, and there will be significant population bursts in the metropolitan area over the next 20 years. The waterfront remains a major attraction to developers and businesses. The cost of energy is going to force a profound change in lifestyle, and people are going to want to live closer to where they work and play. Investment and new confidence in city life will continue to grow, and social conditions will start to improve.

Now I'm thinking we should build a new arena in downtown Baltimore - where the present one stands - and figure out some way of getting by (without losing the Blast) during construction.

We should build the arena to major league dimensions. It should be the site of college basketball playoffs, major concerts and conventions. We should make Baltimore's new arena a state-of-the-art "green" building - get BP Solar to design the power system and take the naming rights - and it should be a massive, glowing presence in downtown Baltimore. It should be an architecturally stunning place that people from all over the world will want to see in a Baltimore that is bigger and bolder, and totally major league.

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