Imagine Verizon Center without the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics or Georgetown basketball.
That could be the scenario in Baltimore if officials move forward with plans to replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena with a brand-new, 18,500-seat facility.
The Baltimore Development Corporation last month issued request for proposals for a group to develop the project, which would be one of the few urban arenas of its size without a major anchor tenant.
If things work out perfectly for Baltimore, the arena would be built using private money and the city would attract a new NBA, NHL or WNBA franchise. But Baltimore could also end up like Kansas City, which financed nearly all of the $276 million Sprint Center in 2005 but has yet to lure a major team despite aggressive overtures to the NHL and NBA.
Trying to build on spec (without a major tenant) has proven a risky proposition for cities.
“Building on spec is one of the worst things you could possibly do for your city,” said Neil deMause, author of the book “Field of Schemes” and a frequent critic of public financing for sports facilities. “I just think it’s crazy.”
Baltimore is motivated largely by a desire to extend the economic development north from the city’s Inner Harbor. While the 1st Mariner Arena is host to the Baltimore Blast soccer team, some college games, concerts and the circus, it is too small and too old to lure a major franchise that would generate enough attendance to be an economic boon.
Economists have long questioned the rationale of using sports facilities to drive economic development, but most also agree that an arena of the size being proposed in Baltimore offers the best chance for success. A 15,000 to 20,000-seat arena can be used year-round and attract a large array of events, conceivably hosting a large group of people nearly every day of the year.
But it helps to have long-term leases with major tenants, who would theoretically help pay down debt service and offer guaranteed crowds. And ideally, a city would love to have at least one of those tenants in place before construction starts.
Verizon Center in Washington is generally viewed as one of the most successful sports arenas in the country, and that’s largely because of the four teams that keep the facility packed year-round. City officials love to credit the arena with spurring downtown redevelopment, but it is the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics and Georgetown - not the arena itself - that keep the neighborhood thriving.
Of course, the Caps and Wizards would still be playing in Maryland if Abe Pollin hadn’t worked with the city to build Verizon Center, but luring a team in from the suburbs is a much easier proposition than attracting an expansion team or a franchise from across the country.
The chances of a new Baltimore arena landing a major franchise currently appear very slim. The NBA and NHL have no current plans to expand or put two teams in the same region, and while Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has floated the notion of luring a WNBA team, it’s unlikely the league would be willing to encroach on the Mystics, who have built a loyal fan base despite years of team mediocrity.
Baltimore must also be aware of the bait-and-switch. All too often, cities have spent millions of dollars and even more in sweat equity to attract a team, only to find that they were being used as leverage in other negotiations.
Said deMause: “They could end up like Kansas City, where they build it and then they get hosed.”