If we build it, will they come?

The Baltimore Sun

State and city leaders unveiled plans yesterday to tear down the aging 1st Mariner Arena and replace it with a new venue big enough to attract a professional basketball or hockey team to Baltimore - an idea that drew a skeptical response from the sports world.

Calling the 46-year-old 1st Mariner Arena "functionally obsolete," officials said a new 18,500-seat facility would draw the biggest concerts and acts to Baltimore and could play host to major events such as the NCAA basketball tournament. A new arena would probably cost $300 million or more, paid for largely with public money, and could open as soon as 2012.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon chose to put the new venue on the site of the current arena because of its proximity to the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore Convention Center and transit lines, and said they believe it would anchor the revitalization of downtown's west side. They rejected alternative sites in Canton, on the South Baltimore waterfront and in struggling neighborhoods that need an economic boost.

The National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association have no plans to expand or relocate any of their franchises, but city and state officials said they would build an arena even without a commitment from a professional sports team. Previous state policy called for attracting a franchise before building a sports venue, but city officials said this project would thrive even without a team.

"We need a state-of-the-art arena because whether we have a major-league team in Baltimore playing basketball or shooting hockey pucks, this is a major-league city and it deserves a major-league arena," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and head of a panel formed to evaluate arena options. The panel issued its recommendations yesterday with the support of the mayor and the governor.

Brodie said the city should think big, which it doesn't always do. "Sometimes we're a little pessimistic about the city," he said.

But experts say it is unlikely that Baltimore could lure another professional team and that the city would have trouble finding enough corporations to buy luxury seating, which teams depend on for a large part of their revenue.

A large arena would rarely sell out and would feel cold and impersonal when only half-full, experts said.

Brodie batted away such concerns yesterday. Instead, his plans for the new arena are a study in optimism. It would be 4,500 seats larger than the 14,000-capacity 1st Mariner Arena and include retail space on the ground level to connect the developing west side with downtown. Brodie said the city could sell the air rights above the arena - meaning that condominiums or offices could rise above it.

The city will soon put out a formal request for proposals, inviting developers to submit plans for the new arena. Those plans will be due by this fall, and a developer will probably be selected next year. Demolition of 1st Mariner, believed to be the oldest functioning arena in the country, would begin in 2010. Construction of the new facility would take two to three years, forcing ice shows, circuses and sports teams to find new sites during the construction.

A major question to be resolved is how the arena would be paid for. Brodie said there should be "major private-sector involvement" through the sale of naming rights and other opportunities, and that the city and state "should not be asked to write a check." But without the commitment of an NBA or NHL team to occupy the arena, significant public financing would be essential.

O'Malley said the state would step up to help the city pay for it.

"Whether there's a professional team or not ... I think the arena in and of itself is such an attraction, with all the other variety of shows that come here and the circus and everything else, it's definitely worth the investment," O'Malley said.

Neither the city nor the state is actively pursuing a hockey or basketball franchise, but the state is moving to set up a Maryland Sports Commission to market existing venues for special events, such as the Army-Navy football game. That commission could work on attracting the NBA and the NHL, the state said.

NBA commissioner David Stern said this year that many owners believe that relocation is an option when cities fail to support a team. The Sonics recently finalized a move to Oklahoma City after Seattle rejected construction of a new arena. Nashville, New Orleans and Oklahoma City built arenas between 1996 and 2002 without commitments from major-league teams and subsequently attracted NHL or NBA franchises.

Kansas City opened a new arena last fall in hopes of attracting a franchise but has failed to lure one so far. The city's Sprint Center has managed to attract large concert acts such as Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen and once-a-year sporting events such as the NCAA basketball tournament.

A new, larger Baltimore arena would be able to attract more of those one-off events, but critics wonder whether the added cost would be worth it. A 12,000- to 14,000-seat arena could be built for about $200 million. Arenas with 18,000 seats cost in the $300 million range.

"It is impossible to build a building of that size that is privately financed. The state and city have to pick it up," said John Moag, a former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority who now runs a company that provides consulting to sports leagues and teams. He said an 18,500-seat arena could cost close to $400 million, and he questioned whether Baltimore needs such a big venue.

"Frankly, I don't think we have use for an arena that big," Moag said. He said the Baltimore-Washington market is "pretty saturated" with sports teams and that he thought it unlikely that a pro franchise would come to Baltimore. Failing that, he said, a large arena would have trouble filling up for many events.

The average attendance for family events, such as the circus or Ice Capades, is about 8,000, arena officials said. The Baltimore Blast soccer team and Mariners indoor football team, which play in the arena, rarely draw more than 8,000.

"The bottom line is, you'll end up having a very empty arena for most events, and that's not usually a fun place to go to," Moag said.

But Brodie and members of the arena panel said a large venue would be successful even without a pro team. They said major concerts would fill the arena as well as events like the NCAA Final Four or the ACC Tournament. They said the Baltimore Convention Center would use a new arena for spillover events it could not handle.

And they said the use of screens and other devices would make it possible to close off parts of the arena that are not being used, so it does not seem so large and empty for smaller events.

Building on the current site means that for at least two years Baltimore would not have an arena. Officials expect that concerts and family events would return to the city for the new arena, which would enjoy a "honeymoon period" of getting top-flight events because of the new venue. Less certain is the future for the Blast and the Mariners.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., owner of the Blast, said his team would go out of business during construction of the new arena and that he isn't sure the team could be revived. "We're done," he said, adding that alternative venues have been explored and are inadequate.

The city is looking into building a temporary facility for the Blast, the circus and other arena users.

Construction of a new arena is no guarantee. State financing would have to be approved by the legislature. When the Orioles and Ravens stadiums were built, the legislature required teams to sign a lease to use them before ground could be broken. Building without such a guarantee is a speculative venture that could run into opposition in Annapolis.

"In the last 20 years, the legislature has not wanted to take the risk of building a large public facility without knowing that there's a principal tenant," said Alison Asti, a former executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority and now president of the Asti Strategic Advisers sports consulting firm.

She noted that the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Capitals hockey team have struggled at times with attendance and that - along with the high number of luxury suites at sports venues in the region - would hurt Baltimore's chances of getting a team.

Economists, meanwhile, question how much an arena would contribute to west-side revitalization or the city's overall economic base. They say the civic pride argument trotted out by sports venue boosters translates into few real dollars.

"If we took the $200 million they're going to spend on this arena and we spent it in some other way, what benefits would come to the community?" asked Dennis Coates, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That sort of analysis is never done."

But city officials said the current arena is disconnected from its surroundings and that a new arena would be a part of the city's urban fabric, linking the tourist attractions along the harbor with the growth of the west side.

"We are making a big investment in the west side," Dixon said. "It reminds me of the area in D.C. with the [Verizon] Center. That whole community has changed, with people more willing to walk around down there."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Matthew Hay Brown, Annie Linskey, Lorraine Mirabella and Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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