Donald Fry: Maryland Stadium Authority detractors prove spectacularly inaccurate

By Donald C. Fry

In this era of skepticism, when public gratuitous denigration of institutions has become an accepted norm, we should not be surprised that a well-known state agency was unreasonably targeted in an op-ed attack last week by eight members of the citizen editorial advisory board to the Daily Record, which covers legal and business news in Baltimore City and the state.

What was surprising was the target of the attack: the widely-respected Maryland Stadium Authority. Another surprise: the opinion piece was spectacularly inaccurate and disingenuous.

Among other things, the rambling and disjointed piece labels the Stadium Authority a “sinkhole” for taxpayer money and a “plaything” for government leaders “to build new, shiny and useless capital projects.” Yet the specific examples it cites — relating to studies of Baltimore City courthouses and a proposed horse park, the Baltimore Grand Prix and the Hippodrome Theater — are riddled with major factual errors.

What’s going on here? I’m not sure, but this attempt to paint the Stadium Authority as some kind of loose-cannon, out-of-control, and fiscally-wasteful agency with broad powers to build things on a whim does not ring true to those in state government and to business leaders who are familiar with this agency.

The Stadium Authority is among the state’s most credible and trusted agencies, both in Annapolis and in the business and economic development community. Since it was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1987 to manage the newly-created site for the Camden Yards stadium complex, the Stadium Authority has served as the state’s evaluator and developer for signature capital projects related mostly to athletics, entertainment, conventions and meetings.

The authority does not initiate projects. By law, it does not become involved in a project unless it is asked to do so, and all projects must be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

Over the years, the Maryland General Assembly has increasingly turned to the Stadium Authority because it has consistently demonstrated its ability to deliver projects of substantial magnitude on time and on budget, often under budget.

During the last 25 years, the Stadium Authority has managed or been significantly involved in the completion of 19 capital projects, including Oriole Park at Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium, the 1996 Baltimore Convention Center expansion, Camden Station, the Hippodrome, University Commons at UMBC, a new baseball complex at Towson University and a new physical education building and other facilities at Coppin State University.

Outside the Baltimore area, the authority’s projects include the Ocean City Convention Center, Montgomery County Conference Center, Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, a baseball stadium in Waldorf, and Comcast Center, a parking garage, and a softball field at the University of Maryland College Park.

Throughout its existence, the Stadium Authority has provided critical independent evaluation of capital project proposals that come before state lawmakers, including a current proposal by the Greater Baltimore Committee to expand the Baltimore Convention Center and connect it to an adjacent new arena and hotel near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

State lawmakers count on the Stadium Authority to provide due diligence, not blind ratification.

The Daily Record‘s citizen editorial advisors pick at the Hippodrome Theater project, calling the venue a “white elephant” because of declining ticket revenue in recent years. The writers suggest Baltimore region residents do not need the Hippodrome because those who are “serious about theater” should be content to drive to Washington, D.C. or take a bus to New York to see world-class productions.

Given the fact that the Hippodrome Theater has only been in operation for seven years, including four tough recession years, and the fact that its most recent show, “The Lion King,” just set a box office record at the theater, one could suggest it’s way too early to label the venue a “white elephant.”

Meanwhile, the op-ed detractors completely ignore the substantial economic benefit derived from the construction projects the Stadium Authority has managed over the years.

A compelling example is the Baltimore Convention Center expansion in 1996, which was financed and built under the management of the Stadium Authority. In FY 2011, this facility cost the state $11 million in debt service and the state share of operating expenses, but it generated an estimated $39 million in tax revenue, according to state data.

Doubling the amount of the state’s investment in the facility in a given year surely does not qualify as a taxpayer “sinkhole.”
But aside from the number crunching, consider the broader value and enhanced quality of life that the projects managed and built, on time and on budget, by the Stadium Authority bring to the region and state.

Without these projects, we would be doing a lot more traveling than just driving to Washington, D.C. or taking the bus to New York to enjoy world-class theater.

We could be driving to D.C. or Philadelphia for major league baseball and NFL football. For our large beach-side conventions, we’d go to Atlantic City instead of Ocean City. To see U2 or Kenny Chesney stadium concerts, we’d have to check the Internet for their nearest stops at a stadium venue somewhere else.

You get my point. Many important aspects of life in Baltimore and Maryland, not to mention attractiveness as a travel destination in a state where the hospitality and tourism industry is among the top-five job generators, would be severely diminished today without the projects constructed under the Stadium Authority’s widely-acknowledged astute management.

It’s fair to hold state government agencies to high standards for operations and cost-effectiveness, and to evaluate their performance against those standards. And, as someone who has had no qualms about being critical of government policies in my own commentaries, I fully appreciate that we are all entitled to our opinions.

Nevertheless, by any objective measure, the Maryland Stadium Authority is a state agency that clearly demonstrates high operational standards in carrying out a critical mission: effectively managing the construction of major publicly-funded, capital projects that serve as venues related to sports, conventions and tourism, meetings, and entertainment.

In providing consistently professional analysis and oversight for such projects, the Stadium Authority delivers substantial value to citizens and plays an instrumental role in Maryland’s development of assets that benefit economic growth.

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