Donald Fry: The case for a combined arena and convention center project

By Donald Fry

In my experience, good ideas rarely just happen. They generally don’t materialize out of thin air.

Instead, good ideas are often the product of a confluence of compelling needs, opportunity, and circumstances that put people in positions to take advantage of an opportunity in effective and, in some cases, spectacular ways.

Such a confluence is occurring in Baltimore and has recently prompted a good idea to materialize and to gain support within the business community – combine the construction of a badly-needed new arena in Baltimore with an also-badly-needed expansion of the city’s convention center.

The Greater Baltimore Committee last week endorsed pursuing development of a concept to build a new 18,500-seat arena and a 500-room hotel at a site now occupied by the Sheraton Hotel at the corner of Charles and Conway streets and to rebuild and expand the 31-year-old east wing of the Baltimore Convention Center that is adjacent to that site, tripling its floor space in the process.

Here’s the concept in a nutshell.

The footprint for the entire project would be all of the land between Pratt and Conway streets, bordered on the west by Sharp Street and on the east by Charles Street, except the land occupied by the Otterbein United Methodist Church. The church site would not be disturbed.

The project could be phased in as follows:

• Phase One: build a new hotel on the surface parking lot to the west of the existing Sheraton garage and next to the church property. Shift hotel operations to the new structure, replacing the existing 337-room Sheraton. The new hotel would contain 500 rooms.
• Phase Two: demolish the existing Sheraton Hotel and parking garage.
• Phase Three: build a new 18,500-seat arena on the Conway Street land between the new hotel and Charles Street. The new hotel would be directly connected to the new arena.
• Phase Four: demolish the existing east wing of the convention center.
• Phase Five: build a new east wing of the convention center, which would contain 580,000 square-feet of exhibition, meeting room and office space, compared to 190,000 square-feet in the old east wing. The new convention center wing would be directly connected to the main concourse floor of the new arena.

The end result would be that Baltimore would have a new arena, a new 500-room hotel, and a convention center that could offer more than 600,000 square-feet of exhibit space and where participants in large conventions could easily walk into a major new 18,500-seat arena venue for general sessions. Both the new arena and the new convention center wing would be “wrapped” together with opportunities for street-level retail space.

This concept compares favorably to an existing convention center that has only 300,000 square feet of exhibit capacity and where large convention-goers have to walk two blocks to a deteriorating 50-year old arena for large general sessions.

Few dispute the need for a new arena in Baltimore to replace the 14,000 maximum-capacity, 48-year-old 1st Mariner Arena. Its capacity ranks 102nd among U.S. arenas. It is 30 years older than the average arena in the top 35 U.S. metropolitan areas and its capacity is more than 5,000 fewer than the average.

The Baltimore Convention Center’s competitive position in the U.S. convention market has also been slipping dramatically. Its rank has dropped to 73rd largest in the country, and will slip lower if we stand pat, according to Tom Noonan, president & CEO of Visit Baltimore. Its current 300,000 square feet of exhibit space makes it very difficult for Baltimore to compete in a market where the average convention center size is 685,000 square feet.

Why combine the projects? Here are four big reasons.

First, it eliminates the significant negative economic impact from losing, during an at least three-year construction process, the current arena’s 138 events per year if the new arena is built on the site of the existing one. Under this new proposal, the existing arena can remain operational until the new one is built.

Second, moving the current arena to the Inner Harbor area opens up redevelopment opportunities at the existing arena site to link Baltimore’s growing west side to the city center.

Third, this is the kind of transformative project that would inject renewed vitality into the Inner Harbor area and make Baltimore’s downtown an entertainment, sports, and recreational venue that would be unrivaled on the east coast as an attraction for visitors and business development.

Fourth, and the key element to moving forward with this new idea, is that Willard Hackerman, a long-time Baltimore business leader and former GBC board member who the owns the Sheraton Hotel and the Conway Street property, is supportive of the concept.

This is what I meant earlier about “confluence of circumstances.” These factors put us in a position to apply a compelling, creative solution to the issues of replacing our arena and keeping our convention center competitive.

This is still just a concept. We know that a lot of questions remain to be asked and answered, including the ultimate question of cost and how it would be financed.

But this is our moment in 2010 to make the same kind of bold moves for the next generations that our predecessors made in the 1960s and 1970s with catalytic “game-changing” projects like Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

In Baltimore, we’ve been debating what to do about the arena for more than 10 years, and have been casting about for a solution to our convention capacity. This idea clearly deserves to be pursued. It represents an extraordinary opportunity to stop debating the past and move Baltimore into its future.

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