New planning effort proposed to expand Convention Center and replace downtown arena

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Baltimore convention center

A 2012 proposal to build a new downtown arena as part of an expanded convention center, dormant since contractor Willard Hackerman died in 2014, is back on the table – with strong funding support from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

The Maryland Stadium Authority today approved a request to begin a study to determine the best way to expand Baltimore’s aging Convention Center to make it more competitive with facilities in other cities.

The study also will look at the idea of building a new arena as part of an expanded convention center – a “hybrid” project  that was considered a “game changer” for the city when it was first proposed four years ago.

Michael Frenz, executive director of the stadium authority, and senior vice president Gary McGuigan, told the board that the stadium authority was prepared to undertake a $2.5 million feasibility study of the hybrid design in 2013 if certain parties would sign a Memorandum of Understanding supporting the effort.

One of the parties was construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who owned the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel, which would have been part of the project. After Hackerman died in early 2014 without signing the documents, the study never moved ahead.

But now officials from the mayor’s office and Visit Baltimore, the city’s convention bureau, want to take another look at ways to expand and improve the convention center, including the idea of incorporating a new arena as part of a hybrid project, Frenz said.  “It’s already losing business” because of its size and condition, he said. “They don’t want to lose another year” without making plans for improvements.

Frenz and McGuigan said the study would look at the idea of expanding the convention center without incorporating a new arena, and the idea of expanding the convention center with an arena as a key part of the expansion.

McGuigan said consultants would be asked to look at the earlier proposal for the hybrid project and test it against market conditions today. “There are  a lot of people in the business community that are still supportive of the hybrid” proposal, he said. “This study will look at a stand-alone convention center expansion and the hybrid.”

The stadium authority approved a plan to spend $1 million for the first phase of a “program design and engineering study” that could eventually cost $2.5 million.  For the first $1 million, $60,000 will come from the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. The remaining $940,000 is coming from the state and the city, with the state paying two-thirds, or $626,667, and the city paying one-third, or $313,333.

The plan still must be approved by state legislators before work can begin. The $1 million first phase is expected to take one year to complete from the time it is started.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts

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