Six months ago, when the Greater Baltimore Committee advanced a bold proposal to expand the city’s convention center and connect it to a new arena, we praised the idea but warned that the public and private sectors would have to collaborate on a fiscally responsible approach to the $900 million project.
This week the GBC unveiled the outlines of a financing plan that would seem to do exactly that. While there is still much to consider and many details to work out, this plan provides a roadmap for a financing package with more than half coming from private sources.
The key figure in the deal is Willard Hackerman, president and CEO of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. Mr. Hackerman owns the Sheraton Hotel, which would be demolished and rebuilt nearby to make room for the new arena.
When the plan was announced in November, the GBC said Mr. Hackerman had agreed to the land swap as part of the plan which could cost him about three years’ revenue from his hotel. Now the GBC says Mr. Hackerman is willing to assemble $500 million in private financing for the hotel-arena part of the project if the city and state commit to expanding the convention center, which is estimated to cost $400 million.
Conveniently for the public sector, the construction bonds for the old arena expire next year, and the bonds for the east wing of the convention center, which would be replaced, expire in 2014.
The mayor and the governor will ask the Maryland Stadium Authority to conduct a feasibility study by year’s end on expanding the convention center. This is an essential step to ensure the validity of the plan’s underlying assumptions.
Then every detail of the plan, especially the financial details, must be carefully examined to ensure that the public can have confidence in the integrity of the process.
With all of that said, however, we continue to believe the GBC plan is right on target to address some of the area’s most pressing needs. Baltimore’s existing convention center and arena have fallen far behind the competition in terms of space and amenities. That is bad economic news for the city and the state.
The new arena and expanded convention center should address Baltimore’s needs in those areas for a generation. Also, the GBC proposal for nightly water-and-light shows plus a tasteful remake of Rash Field would breathe new life into the Inner Harbor, which is showing signs of age after being the centerpiece of the city’s renaissance for nearly 31 years.
The GBC plan holds extraordinary promise for our city and state. Willard Hackerman’s offer to finance the new arena and hotel is a giant step toward making this plan a reality. Now our public sector leaders need to do their part.