|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 06, 2012--A $900 million proposal to build a downtown sports and entertainment arena linked to an expanded Baltimore Convention Center would appeal to national and international convention planners seeking a "destination package" and could transform the city, according to a Maryland Stadium Authority study released Monday.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake requested the study, which analyzed a proposal to build an 18,500-seat arena and a 500-room Sheraton Hotel, both privately financed, next to a publicly funded convention center expansion at Charles, Pratt, Sharp and Conway streets.
The new arena would replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena on downtown's west side, a priority of the Rawlings-Blake administration.
"The report ... certainly demonstrates that Baltimore needs to continue to enhance its tourism and convention product if we're going to remain competitive," said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a private business group that proposed combining a new arena with a larger convention center. "Certainly we can't stand still if we want to still be a significant player in the convention-tourism destination business."
While the financing will be complex, Rawlings-Blake said in a statement, "building a new, world-class convention center in the heart of Baltimore's Inner Harbor will strengthen our tourism industry and spark new growth throughout the city."
A new arena would generate an estimated $48.1 million to $50.3 million in spending annually and support between 730 and 760 jobs, according to the report.
The expanded convention center would generate between $214.4 million and $284.6 million of spending in the state, the report projected. Most of that -- between $186.7 million and $247.8 million --would be spent in the city.
The report conducted by Crossroads Consulting Services found significant demand for more space to hold bigger and simultaneous events. The Tampa, Fla.-based consulting firm also supported the proposed Inner Harbor location, which is close to attractions, accommodations and sports venues.
An expanded convention center would attract an additional four to eight large, citywide conventions or groups a year, the report said. Additional, smaller events also could be accommodated, said Tom Noonan, executive director of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention agency.
The stadium authority agreed last summer to study the proposal, first floated by the Greater Baltimore Committee in 2010 to help the city angle for more of the lucrative convention business. Cities such as Washington, Philadelphia and Nashville compete with Baltimore for conventions and have added or are adding meeting and hotel space.
The report confirmed the GBC's belief that such a project could address both the city's need for a new arena and to stay competitive as a destination, Fry said.
Construction magnate Willard Hackerman, president and chief executive of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., has offered to lead a team that would privately finance and build a $325 million arena and a $175 million hotel.
Hackerman's offer is contingent on the convention center expansion, which is expected to cost $400 million. The existing 320-room Sheraton, owned by Hackerman, would be demolished to make way for the redevelopment.
"The private sector's interest in developing a new hotel and arena has created a unique opportunity to combine two major public assembly projects in downtown Baltimore and potentially realize synergies from a land use, physical planning, operational, and economic perspective," the report said.
Hackerman is working to secure private-sector funding for the arena and hotel and has received some interest, Fry said Monday. The convention center expansion likely would be funded through state and city bond issues.
O'Malley has requested $2.5 million in the state capital budget for planning and design and to explore ways to finance the project.
"During these tough economic times, there are a lot of pressures on the state capital budget," Fry said. "The good news is that we're not seeking the large construction dollars at this time."
With luck, Fry said, the economy would improve by the time the project gets under way, likely not before 2016.
The report called the city's convention center, last expanded in 1996, a "valuable economic generator" that has held more than 430 events and accommodated 1.3 million attendees over the last three fiscal years.
Conventions and trade shows, which made up about a third of those events, averaged more than $307.1 million in direct spending, which annually supported 5,100 jobs and generated $41.5 million in local and state taxes, researchers said.
However, the city lost business to competitors because of inadequate space or unavailable dates, and would lose more in the future if the convention center is not expanded, the report said.
"We've got a long way to go in terms of financing and when we would build, but I'm glad we're looking at the future of tourism," Noonan said.
(c)2012 The Baltimore Sun
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