Fight over funding taking shape

As Baltimore officials and sports fans bask in the promise a new arena could bring to the city, a familiar battle is already taking shape among the state lawmakers who may be charged with finding a way to pay for it.

Arena boosters say it's not certain the project would need state support. But the scope of the project - which by some estimates could cost more than $300 million to build - is nonetheless likely to stimulate debate in Annapolis.

Lawmakers played a significant role in crafting financing plans for the Camden Yards sports complex. As it did then, debate over state funding for an arena would likely revolve around the return such a facility could provide to state taxpayers.

Lawmakers who would lead the debate over funding for a new arena said they need to see more details before taking a hard position, but they warned that any request for state support for a Baltimore arena would be receive a thorough review.

"If there's going to be a battle, a political battle, it will be in proportion to the amount of money we're talking about," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland. "We have schools that need to be built."

City and state officials said this week they intend to replace the 46-year-old 1st Mariner Arena with an 18,500-seat facility that could draw major concerts to the city - and perhaps entice an NBA or NHL sports team to move here.

In seeking proposals to build the arena, Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore Development Corp. officials said they are also looking for developers to supply creative ways to finance a facility to "minimize public investment." No one knows how much public money may be required.

Gov. Martin O'Malley endorsed the project earlier this week and said, "The state would have to be very, very much involved with the city in making it happen," when asked about whether the state would help finance the project.

That sentiment has buoyed supporters of the project, who argue that it is appropriate to spend state tax dollars on an arena because a successful project would increase the standing of not only the Baltimore region but also of the entire state.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and avowed basketball fan, speculated that if a new arena lures a professional basketball team to Baltimore, the economic benefit would extend far beyond the city line.

"Baltimore deserves to have three major franchises," Zirkin said. "Baltimore should be a player in this, and it hasn't been. I just think it's incredibly important for economic reasons."

Though supporters say a potential 18,500-seat arena would attract other events, some questioned the wisdom of moving forward without having a major team lined up first. Lawmakers raised similar questions in the 1990s as they debated the building of what is now M&T Bank Stadium, and they required the Ravens to commit to using the stadium before ground could be broken.

Support for the new arena could also turn on how much money the city is willing to throw into the mix if public funding is needed, several lawmakers said. Other factors that could influence political support are who would control the site and who would collect revenues from ticket sales, naming rights and lucrative box seat licenses.

"A lot of us are tired of seeing governments pursue a project of this type that benefits a few wealthy owners," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader from Frederick County, who said he was skeptical of the economic impact an arena would have outside of Baltimore.

"We need to see what those benefits are going to be," he said.

Similar debates have played out across the country, including in Indianapolis, where officials are finishing construction on a new stadium for the Colts, and in New York, where stadiums are being built for the Yankees and the Mets.

"There are a lot of factors involved," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's Democrat who is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that deals with the stadium authority. "It is a careful balancing act to weigh the public benefit in a project like that."