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DIXON EYEING SOCCER ARENA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mayor Sheila Dixon has asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to explore the possibility of building a soccer stadium in Baltimore to woo D.C. United, the Major League Soccer franchise in the nation's capital that has said it is looking for a new stadium.

The letter, dated last Wednesday and received by the agency Monday, asks the authority to study the potential benefits of building a 17,000- to 20,000-seat stadium that could serve as United's permanent home, as well as host concerts, lacrosse games and other events.

A spokesman for Dixon said Tuesday that it is uncertain how the stadium might be financed. Similar plans to build a soccer stadium in Prince George's County for D.C. United were rejected this year, in part because of concerns about using taxpayer dollars.

"Right now, we're just looking at asking the Maryland Stadium Authority to study if the stadium could be self- supporting," said Scott Peterson, a Dixon spokesman. "In these economic times, we understand that the city ... has bigger priorities in spending its money."

Demaune A. Millard, Dixon's chief of staff and a member of the stadium authority, said the goal of the letter is to "get the ball rolling" on exploring the idea of building a stadium. He said he hopes the agency will approve funds for a feasibility study in the near future. Other stadium authority members seemed interested in Dixon's idea.

Though Peterson and Millard said the city has had no contact with D.C. United about a move, team officials indicated Tuesday that they would be interested in seeing the results of a study.

"D.C. United continues to search for an appropriate, long-term home for our team," Doug Hicks, the club's vice president of communications, said in an e-mail.

"Baltimore has demonstrated its ability to work with the state to create world-class facilities for the Orioles and Ravens. We believe a new D.C. United stadium can be an exciting and vital economic engine and look forward to the results of the Maryland Stadium Authority study of a Baltimore City location. Our conversations with other municipalities will continue."

The proposed stadium complex, according to Dixon's letter, would be part of a "green mixed-use project" with access to light rail, Interstates 95 and 295, as well as Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T; Bank Stadium.

"For example," the letter states, "the 42-acre Westport Waterfront project meets these standards."

Patrick Turner, head of the Baltimore-based development company that owns the parcel along Westport's waterfront, said Tuesday through a spokeswoman that it is too early to tell whether a soccer stadium could be a possibility there. Turner Development plans a $1.2 billion community of offices, shops, homes and a hotel near the Westport light rail station.

A soccer stadium would not be the first sports complex proposed for the site.

When Turner unveiled plans for Westport in 2006, they included a velodrome, a cycling arena that could be used for sports or concerts. But those plans were scrapped because the site ended up being a resource conservation district where construction is prohibited.

Turner Development then proposed Westport as the site for the city's new indoor sports and concert arena. Turner, one of seven development groups that competed to build the project to replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena, had said a Westport arena would have the benefit of its own light rail stop, highway access and parking that would come with the offices. The city has since decided to build a new arena on the existing 1st Mariner site on downtown's west side but has put off selecting a developer until the economy improves.

Millard said the soccer stadium would be built specifically to lure D.C. United to Baltimore.

"We understand that there is an interest for that team to relocate," Millard said. "From that standpoint, now that the opportunity has presented itself, we want to make sure that the city is working in conjunction with the state in looking at any potential opportunities of a possible home here in Baltimore."

D.C. United - which is considered one of the most successful franchises in Major League Soccer, and regularly is among the league leaders in attendance - has played its home games at RFK Stadium since the team was founded in 1995. The former home of the Washington Redskins seats 45,596.

But the team, which is owned by the consortium D.C. United Holdings, has been looking to move its home games to a soccer-only facility for several years. It has attempted to negotiate a stadium deal for several locations, most recently a proposal to build a $195 million complex in Prince George's County that would seat 24,000.

But the Prince George's County Council voted unanimously in April to oppose state legislation that would have commissioned a feasibility study for the stadium project, which effectively ended the plan. The Prince George's County site proposal, according to media reports, would have required the Maryland Stadium Authority to float bonds for the stadium that would have been secured by D.C. United rent and future tax revenue.

"We understand that D.C. United ... has abandoned any plans to build a stadium in Prince George's County," Dixon's letter said. "In light of the substantial benefits ... it is well worth considering whether the City of Baltimore might explore the merits of a new soccer stadium in Baltimore for D.C. United."

Millard said Dixon's interest in building a soccer stadium was based, at least in part, on the success of this summer's exhibition match between AC Milan and Chelsea at M&T; Bank Stadium, which was held in front of a sold-out crowd of 71,000.

In other Maryland Stadium Authority matters Tuesday, the agency unanimously approved a plan to borrow $24 million to pay for renovations and repairs to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, as well as upgrading the video scoreboard and video control room at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Of that money, $10 million will go toward maintenance and safety upgrades at Oriole Park, $10 million will go toward renovating and repairing the seating bowl, and $4 million will go toward replacing the new scoreboards for the Ravens. The bonds will be repaid by setting aside the first $1.3 million each year that the Maryland Stadium Authority receives from the state lottery.

Stadium authority chairman John Morton III said a study done by the authority concluded that Oriole Park and its warehouse needed close to $30 million in repairs and safety renovations, as well as maintenance upgrades that would essentially pay for themselves by making the building more energy-efficient. Out of that number, the committee came up with a plan that could fix the most pressing issues for $10 million.

The Ravens are contributing $6 million toward the video scoreboard and control room part of the project. After a study that included input from the Ravens, the authority decided to go forward with a plan to add high-definition video boards similar to the ones inside Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets.

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