Baltimore has always been an ‘A’ market. Now it has an ‘A’ arena to go with it.
That has been the message of the Oak View Group and its executives as the company prepared to open the CFG Bank Arena following a $250 million renovation designed to make it a first-class venue for entertainment and sports events.
Starting Friday, Oak View Group and its partners will finally get a chance to show the public what they’ve been talking about.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, and Oak View Group CEO Timothy Leiweke held a ribbon cutting ceremony Friday morning to mark a new chapter in the history of the 14,000-seat arena, which opened in 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center.
“We are now going to be a mecca for music and entertainment here in Baltimore,” Scott told the gathering. “Look at the acts – Bruce Springsteen, blink-182, Lizzo, Anita Baker, Babyface, Janet Jackson and many, many more to come….This is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about showing the renaissance of Baltimore City — an over $200 million investment right into the heart of Baltimore City and showcasing what Baltimore can be when we believe in public-private partnership, when we put every difference aside and work together.”
“This is not a renovation. It’s a reimagination,” Moore said. “It’s not just about a building and an infrastructure. It’s about: How do we see ourselves? And the truth is that progress is not inevitable. Progress doesn’t happen just because. Progress happens because we’re intentional about it, because we make decisions, we push forward even when it’s not easy. And what we’re seeing here today with this work….is the culmination of people who are just very intentional about making this happen.”
The ribbon-cutting ceremony paves the way for the arena to welcome its first public concerts since the renovations were complete: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band on Friday night, and the Eagles on Saturday night.
Oak View Group staged a private “soft opening” concert by Earth, Wind & Fire for construction workers who helped renovate the arena, employees, and people who purchased seat leases to future shows.
As part of Thursday night’s program, Oak View Group brought out a birthday cake for Scott, who turns 39 on Saturday. The company also turned on for the first time a new illuminated sign at Baltimore Street and Hopkins Place that will help light up the building’s exterior after dark and promote future events.
The initial concerts are the first of more than two dozen events that have already been announced for the city-owned building at 201 West Baltimore Street, part of the city’s West Side renewal area.
Other big-name entertainers coming in 2023 include Bryan Adams, Lionel Richie, Kiss, Queen and Adam Lambert, Joan Jett, John Mayer, Adam Sandler, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The full lineup is at cfgbankarena.com.
In all, 120 acts are expected to perform during the arena’s first year of operation, drawing a projected one million patrons to downtown Baltimore and creating hundreds of jobs.
Scott, who regards the arena as a legacy project for his administration, predicts that it will be the catalyst for a new wave of revitalization activity on Baltimore’s westside.
He notes that the improvements didn’t cost taxpayers a cent, because the Oak View Group funded the renovations in return for rights to manage and lease the facility. And he points out that the renovations were completed in slightly more than a year, a time frame that naysayers thought would be impossible to pull off.
In his remarks today, Scott said choosing a team to renovate the arena was one of the first decisions he made after he became mayor in 2020. The city had sought bids for renovating the building during the administration of former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and received two proposals: one from Oak View Group and its partners, and a second bid from a group headed by developer Cary Euwer, president of Metropolitan Partnership Ltd.
Scott recalled that many people had recommended to him and previous mayors that the city build a new arena in another location. But he said he felt that renovating the existing building would be the best way to rejuvenate the West Side of downtown.
“We know there have been many, many, many discussions about what the arena in Baltimore should look like in my lifetime, probably more task forces than we can ever imagine,” he said. “And we know that so many people said that this is what we shouldn’t do. That we should move the arena. That the city and state should put up hundreds of millions of dollars to move it to the Convention Center or to Pier 5 or to Canton or to wherever else that they said.”
Scott said that after consulting with Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, he decided the best course of action would be to keep the arena where it was and upgrade it so it would be competitive as a venue for sports and entertainment events.
“[Tarbert] said ‘Mr. Mayor, I think this is the one. I think, this is a decision that you’ll have to make, but I think this is ultimately what will bring this part of the West Side of downtown back.’ And we were right and everyone else was wrong,” Scott said. “We didn’t have to move it. We got done in 18 months what folks couldn’t get done in 35 years. And we did it [at no cost] to the taxpayers of Baltimore City.”
‘Bullish on Baltimore‘
Moore hailed the improvements as a wise investment that will pay off for both the arena and the area around it.
”The economic potential of this project only goes up from here,” he said. “What we see is that the CFG Bank Arena is going to be a place to go, it’s going to be a destination. But it’s also going to be a place where we can drive imaginations. We’re going to bring in new businesses and vendors…a whole new group of entrepreneurs who are going to be able to share their craft and sell their products.”
Oak View Group’s investment “is not only going to benefit what is happening here at the arena but is going to benefit everything around the arena as well,” he said.
Because of the improvements, “we now have an arena that actually matches the hope for the city,” Moore said. “I’m incredibly bullish on Baltimore. I’m incredibly bullish about what this city is and what this city can do. I am very clear when I say that this is going to be Maryland’s decade because it’s going to be Baltimore’s time. And those two things match together. And we have a space that is not just going to be an attraction, but a celebration of people who are already here, a celebration of what this city is.”
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson praised Scott for his decision to keep the arena where it was when others had given up on the West Side.
“There had been 15,000 different task forces and charettes and ideas of moving the arena — that we had to tear it down, the West Side was never going to get redeveloped, and just put it somewhere where it’s going to be stronger,” Ferguson said. But “the mayor said no, we have another option. And he worked with the BDC and found the right partners to get something done.”
As a result, “Bruce Springsteen is going to be here performing in a place that folks said, ‘That arena is dead. It will never come back.’ Well guess what? They’re wrong. They’re wrong. And that’s what this moment and this investment represents. It’s how we as a city grow and become everything that is possible.”
Based in Los Angeles, Oak View Group is leading the CFG Bank Arena team in association with Thirty Five Ventures, the investment company of NBA player Kevin Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman, and recording artist Pharrell Williams.
Renovation work began in early 2022 and included a revamped seating configuration; new concourses, restrooms, and concessions areas; updated mechanical systems and a redesigned exterior. The refurbished arena had a test run in February, when Baltimore hosted the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments, but there was still more work to finish. The contractors, led by Clark Construction Group of Bethesda, completed the upgrades after the tournaments ended, knowing the first concert was April 7.
‘An A building’
During a recent tour for the media, arena general manager Frank Remesch and others pointed out the major upgrades to the building and explained why they think the arena will be a success – particularly in attracting big name entertainers that may have bypassed Baltimore in the past.
They also dispelled some long-held notions about Baltimore and the arena that they say aren’t valid now that the renovations are complete.
One long-held notion is that big name acts won’t come to both Baltimore and Washington, or Baltimore and Philadelphia, on the same national tour.
Remesch said that entertainers have always seen Baltimore as a strong market, separate from Washington or Philadelphia. The main reason acts may have bypassed Baltimore in the past, he said, is that Baltimore didn’t have a 14,000-seat arena that met their standards as a place to perform. But with the recent renovations, he said, those concerns have been addressed and they are willing to stop in Baltimore.
Remesch said many acts that are coming to Baltimore are also stopping in Washington and Philadelphia. At the same time, he said, people are coming from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia to attend shows at Baltimore’s renovated arena.
Another long-held notion is that Baltimore needs to land one or more professional sports teams to be tenants in the building in order to make the arena a financial success.
Remesch said Oak View Group didn’t agree with that thinking. He said Oak View Group looked at the market and saw that the two large arenas closest to Baltimore, Capital One Arena in Washington and Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, have sport teams that take up a number of dates that can’t be offered to entertainers.
From the Oak View Group’s point of view, he said, the fact that Baltimore’s arena didn’t have a professional sports team was potentially an advantage, because it meant that Baltimore’s arena had more dates to offer entertainers and could be more flexible in accommodating their touring schedules.
Remesch said he can’t wait for the concerts to begin because he believes word will get out about the renovated arena and that will encourage more acts to come to Baltimore.
“I’ve argued this before,” he said during the media tour. “We were an A market. Now we have an A building. The proof is in the pudding. We’re not even open yet and we have a little over 30 shows…After Bruce and the Eagles are here, it’s checkmate.”