Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Editorial Advisory Board: Reforming the Maryland Stadium Authority

This has not been a good year for the Maryland Stadium Authority. The MSA, a state instrumentality in the Executive Branch, was formed to do what its name states: build, maintain, and run stadiums, notably the baseball park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Since its establishment, the MSA has been vested with the power to acquire sites and construct facilities for the Baltimore Convention Center, a convention site in Ocean City, a conference site in Montgomery County, and the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. It also has the authority to prepare studies and construct projects for any units of the State or its political subdivisions.

In short, the MSA has an enormous amount of power to do what it wants, where it wants, and at the bidding of politicians who want pet projects built, off their budgets as much as possible.

Catering to this edifice complex has resulted in disasters for the Maryland taxpayer. We have already commented critically on the $800,000 study of the Baltimore City courthouses, whose results were dictated by an “Executive Committee” whose composition was restricted to government representatives.

Then there is the Hippodrome, an abandoned theater of the golden era that sits just east of the University of Maryland’s law school. It was restored in 2004 to its old glory at the cost of more than $60 million, of which the MSA, backed by the state, contributed more than a third. The debt service to the MSA was to be retired by an annual payment of $1 million from the state’s general fund and $800,000 in ticket-sales surcharges.

Earlier this year, the MSA finally revealed that it had been funding the entire debt service since 2007, because ticket sales had dropped dramatically. In July the MSA announced that it was going to “solve” the problem by contributing $250,000 per year for maintenance costs, extending the bonds for five years, and promising to pay the surcharge on tickets at a number that has not been reached for three years.

Certainly in retrospect, the Hippodrome was a waste of government resources. The theater was unnecessary: the Lyric, which has undergone the latest in a seemingly endless series of renovations and improvements, is more than adequate to handle live productions that play Baltimore, from the touring company of “Chicago” to the nascent opera company formed from the ashes of the bankrupt old one. The Lyric is also in a vibrant area of the city, adjacent to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and to the University of Baltimore campus, undergoing expansion, and Penn Station.

Nor is Baltimore an underserved city theatrically. With their own physical plants, Everyman and CenterStage, among other smaller companies, provide homegrown theater, and the Lyric can handle the bus-and-truck companies that bring stripped-down Broadway productions to Baltimore for a week or so. For people serious about theater, Baltimore is an hour away from one of the four great theater towns in North America — Washington, D.C. For people pining to see Broadway shows, the National Theatre is a short drive down the BW Parkway, as is the Kennedy Center. Of course, Broadway itself is but a Bolt away.

The white-elephant status of the Hippodrome is not the fault of its management or its board, who are doing their best to squeeze the lemon into a lemonade. It is the fault of the MSA, the state, and the city.

Which brings us to the MSA and the Baltimore Grand Prix. The MSA funded and contracted for the conversion of two parking lots by Camden Yards into a pit area for the Grand Prix’s race cars, at a cost of $2.1 million. As part of the deal, the Baltimore Racing Development promised to pay the money back. Running true to form, BRD couldn’t make the payment due a year ago, and received an emergency “loan” from the Maryland Economic Development Corporation in the amount of $500,000. Although the amount of BRD’s debt then due the MSA was $500,000 — and the MEDCO loan was the first direct loan it had ever made — the BRD called the timing a “coincidence” and MEDCO said the loan was “not necessarily” to make the bond payment to the MSA.

As the great 18th-century playwright Gotthold Lessing wrote for one of the characters in his “Emilia Galotti”: “The word coincidence is blasphemy. Nothing under the sun is coincidence — least of all something of which the purpose is so absolutely clear.”

This was no coincidence: the evidence points to a MEDCO bailout of the MSA. With all the money that the MSA has poured down the drain in recent years through the funding of wasteful projects and the studies that justify them, we wondered why it was so important that this loss be underwritten by another state agency. For one reason, an outright default would have shone a harsh spotlight on the Grand Prix and perhaps shut the project down, saving, coincidentally, the City of Baltimore substantial millions of dollars.

Second, we have examined the laws governing the operations of the MSA. Section 10-616(a) of the Economic Development Code allows the MSA, subject to the approval of the Board of Public Works and the Legislative Policy Committee of the General Assembly, to “develop any portion of Camden Yards to generate incidental revenues for the benefit of the [MSA].” While, as lawyers, we know that anyone can claim anything to be true, we fail to see how building a pit stop for racing cars generates additional revenues for the MSA.

The sinkhole for taxpayer money that is the MSA should end. First, we believe that a real and independent investigation of the MSA should be conducted post haste, including the passing of money around for the Grand Prix. That investigation should include the actions of MEDCO.

Second, given its track record, all its current feasibility studies should be suspended, including the one for a Maryland Horse Park.

Third, the MSA should be legislatively reformed to return to its original purpose — running Camden Yards — and no more be allowed to be a plaything for government officials to build new, shiny, and useless capital projects.

Editorial Advisory Board members Laurel Albin, Jim Astrachan, Wes Blakeslee, Neil Duke, Elizabeth Kameen, Norman Smith and Donna Hill Staton did not join in this opinion.

Editorial Advisory Board
James B. Astrachan, Chair
Laurel Albin
John Bainbridge
Neil Duke
Eric Easton
Arthur F. Fergenson
Elizabeth Kameen
Wesley D. Blakeslee
C. William Michaels
William Reynolds
Frederic Smalkin
Norman Smith
Donna Hill Staton
H. Mark Stichel
Christopher West

One comment

  1. Thank you for a good editorial.

    One of the problems with the MSA is that it is not bound by the State procurement laws and regulations which apply to most units of the Executive Branch. If it had to adhere to the State procurement rules, there would be more transparency and, potentially, more accountability for the things on which it chooses to spend taxpayer money.