By Len Lazarick
The Greater Baltimore Committee Wednesday unveiled a grand, $900 million plan for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that will include a new, privately financed 18,500-seat arena topped by a 500-room hotel, both attached to an expanded Baltimore Convention Center.
The $325 million arena and $175 million hotel would be built on the site of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel at Conway and Charles streets owned by Willard Hackerman of Whiting-Turner Contracting Inc. and would be privately financed. But the project is dependent on being attached to a convention center that would double in size if the state will kick in bonds for the $400 million expansion.
The arena would replace the 50-year-old 1st Mariner Arena, which seats 14,000, without having to tear down the old structure between Lombard and Baltimore streets a few blocks away.
The Greater Baltimore Committee plan also includes redeveloping Rash Field, at the Inner Harbor, as a more vibrant waterfront park, building a pedestrian bridge over the narrowest point of the harbor and constructing a sound and light show for the harbor.
The Inner Harbor is “worn and it needs to have a facelift,” said Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Fry said both Gov. Martin O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had reviewed the overall plans.
“The new arena proposal is very exciting,” O’Malley said on Maryland Public Television Wednesday night. “We need a new arena. It’s outlived its utility.”
While the GBC paid for design plans to revamp the Rash Field side of the Inner Harbor – east of the Maryland Science Center — the bulk of the investment would be next to the convention center.
Various proposals to replace the aging arena have been discussed for years, with public financing and location being major hurdles.
Ed Hale, founder and president of 1st Mariner Bank and chairman of board of Visit Baltimore, the local tourism and convention agency, said, “I’m glad we’re not going to be tearing down the existing arena.” Hale’s indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast, plays there.
Fry said there were “many concerns” about demolishing the arena for a replacement on the same site. That would have meant “Baltimore going dark for three years.” The arena hosts about 135 events a year, mostly family oriented shows like circuses, ice shows and concerts.
“We think it is a legitimate state investment,” said Fry, adding that the governor has asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to do a feasibility study, which should help back up the need for the convention renovation.
City and state officials were enthusiastic about the prospects.
Makes Baltimore more competitive
Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, which operates the convention center, said expanding the original convention center building at Pratt and Charles would allow the convention center to do two or three shows at the same time, adding to hotel nights.
More than doubling the size of the convention center to 760,000 square feet would make Baltimore more competitive with Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Nashville, which have larger convention spaces, Noonan said.
Terry Hasseltine, director of sports marketing for the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said the new arena would also allow Baltimore to compete for other sporting events, such as the NCAA basketball Final Four or the Frozen Four in men’s hockey. “We think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Hasseltine said.
At the moment, “we’re definitely behind everybody” in terms of seating capacity and facilities, Hale said. “People are going to call here” if the new center is built, though he’s not sure his team could afford to play there.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. has been run since 1955 by Willard Hackerman, who turned it into a national firm with more than $4 billion in business in 2006, according to the company website.
Hackerman is one of the most politically connected businessmen in Maryland and, along with members of his family and business associates, has been a major contributor to both political parties and their candidates.
Whiting-Turner also has won substantial contracting jobs with the state, with most of the construction in recent years being done at the University of Maryland. According to the Department of Budget and Management spending accountability website, from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2010, the company had $175 million in state contracts.