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Baltimore puts off decision on new downtown arena

Baltimore officials are putting off a decision on a replacement for 1st Mariner Arena, despite having four proposals from developers in hand. The city says it still looking at how to pay for a new $300-million downtown arena; given the recent history of bad development deals around arenas, perhaps the city should step back and ask whether downtown Baltimore needs retail or hotels as part of the plan.One of the few major arena projects on the horizon is the replacement for Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena. For Baltimore residents, the arena is really a referendum on how they perceive their city: while there’s little chance the NBA or NHL will be moving to Baltimore any time soon, many want to build a major-league facility anyway: you never know what will come down the road later on.

Others want to see a more midscale facility, more suited for concerts, family events and higher-level minor-league sports. Those are the kind of events 1st Mariner Arena is currently attracting, and they’re the kind of events that help the current arena turn a profit.

Four developers submitted plans for a replacement 18,500-seats facility at the current arena site. All put the arena at the center of some mixed-use development; the extent and type of development depends on the plan (one plan includes a seven-screen movie theater, for instance, while another includes a hotel). Currently all proposals fall in the $300 million range and feature a major-league-scale arena.

And all call for some sort of public assistance. Not a surprise: privately financed arenas are struggling.

But even in areas where public funding was available, development around the arena is lacking. Kansas City’s Sprint Arena is doing well, but the retail development in the downtown area has disappointed area residents. Similarly, Newark’s Prudential Center has failed to do much for the downtown area.

Right now Baltimore officials have put a hold on arena proposals. Part of the reason has to do with the economic times: financing such a project these days will be a challenge. But with the economic model pushed by all four developers not faring too well these days, the city may want to rethink exactly what it wants of out an arena and how to pay for it.