New study: ‘Arena’s business strong, but facility is obsolete’

While Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena continues to function, it is becoming “operationally inefficient and increasingly obsolete,” according to a new Maryland Stadium Authority study of the 45-year-old sports and entertainment facility.

The study, which the Greater Baltimore Committee helped fund, was performed by KPMG and Odell Associates, a North Carolina-based firm that specializes in major project and sports arena design and construction.

In addition to becoming increasingly inefficient, Baltimore’s arena is not competitive with newer facilities. Dated features include its rectangular seating configuration, obstructed sight lines, tight corridors, and cramped concourse level. As the arena continues to deteriorate without renovations or replacement, “Baltimore will likely lose market share in the sports and entertainment industries,” the report concludes.

“This report clearly indicates that the current facility is beyond its useful life,” said GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry. He noted that the construction of the arena was among the original “Top Five” projects of GBC after the organization’s founding in 1955. The building, then named the Baltimore Civic Center, opened in 1962.

“It’s time for us to give serious consideration to moving forward to build a new arena,” said Fry.

Consultants recommend that a new Baltimore arena should have permanent seating for between 14,000 and 16,000 to accommodate concerts and family shows that are the predominant types of events, along with sports, that use the existing arena.

The current city-owned arena is operated by SMG, the Philadelphia-based worldwide facility management and development company. Despite its age, the arena is doing a substantial business, attracting 600,000 in annual attendance to an average of 120 events per year that generate an estimated $47 million in economic impact and $3.7 million in tax revenue annually, according to the study.

The study estimates that it would cost up to $135 million to expand and renovate the existing arena, compared to as much as $160 million to build a new arena. Both estimates are in 2007 dollars, so actual costs will likely be higher, Fry noted.

The study report does not directly address two big questions – where to locate a new arena and how to pay for its construction. In addition to rebuilding a new arena at its present downtown site, options could include other downtown locations near transit or sites elsewhere, such as in the growing area of Canton, which has been suggested by Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale.

“Location is something that should be discussed, debated and fully analyzed,” said the GBC’s Fry. “There are potential viable options at several locations that would serve the community well.”

The Baltimore Development Corporation will issue a “request for expressions of interest” from the private sector to elicit input on potential locations for a new arena and ideas for private financing.

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