BDC President Colin Tarbert On Why Renovating Royal Farms Arena Is Right Path

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced June 23 that the Baltimore Development Corporation would enter exclusive negotiations with Los Angeles-based Oak View Group on a lease and managing agreement to renovate Royal Farms Arena, which opened in downtown Baltimore nearly 60 years ago.

BDC president and CEO Colin Tarbert believes renovating Royal Farms Arena is the best path forward for the city rather than trying to build a brand new arena for an NHL or NBA team that’s extremely unlikely to come to town. The Capitals and Wizards have territorial rights to Baltimore, and the chances of a third team coming to Charm City would be remote anyway given the Baltimore’s market size.

“We’ve been trying to [build a new arena] for the last 20 years and you see what the result’s been,” Tarbert said on Glenn Clark Radio June 24. “I think the time is now. I don’t think we can afford to wait another five years. … We think this is definitely the right strategic move. We can bring a lot more excitement to downtown by moving forward now than we can hoping that something might fall out of the sky that’s highly unlikely according to industry experts.”

Oak View Group and its partners Thirty Five Ventures, founded by Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman, would oversee and fund the renovation project. Tarbert said the renovation would cost between $150 million and $200 million. A brand new arena would cost between $400 million and $500 million, according to Tarbert.

Royal Farms Arena currently has about 11,000 fixed seats. Tarbert didn’t say how many seats a renovated arena would have but did say it’d fall short of the 18,500 to 20,000 seats typical for a NBA or NHL arena. However, a renovated arena would feature suites and premium seating options that don’t exist at the current arena.

Tarbert said a timetable for the renovation will be determined once the BDC finishes negotiating a lease and management agreement with Oak View Group that is approved by the city’s Board of Estimates. Assuming that occurs, what’s the next step?

“The intent is absolutely to close the arena and knock out [the renovation],” Tarbert said. “We think that that’s the most efficient way to do it both from a cost standpoint and from a disruption to downtown. We would likely go dark, complete construction and then reopen. The timeline isn’t years. It’s maybe a year, potentially even less. “

As of now, Royal Farms Arena does not house a regular tenant. Most recently, the Arena Football League’s Baltimore Brigade played home games at the arena, but the AFL ceased operations in 2019. The Major Arena Soccer League’s Baltimore Blast had long played home games at the arena but moved to Towson University’s SECU Arena in 2017.

It’s unclear what type of sporting events a renovated arena could attract, but it would definitely make Baltimore a better spot for concerts and the like, according to Tarbert.

“We believe that the type of investment that Oak View Group is looking to make and the enhancements they’re looking to make is going to put Baltimore Arena as the key destination for in particular entertainment on the East Coast and we’ll be able to compete with any of the other modern arenas in our region or even nationally,” Tarbert said.

Tarbert said a renovated arena would be a “catalytic investment” that would help transform the west side of downtown, similar to what happened with Capital One Arena in Chinatown in D.C. Tarbert hopes the arena renovation, combined with other projects, would create an arts and entertainment corridor of sorts.

“What we want to do is drive investment and jobs,” Tarbert said of the BDC, the economic arm of the city. “The west side of downtown in the area of the arena, our department, our partners, we’ve been working really hard to change the dynamic of that area. So there’s a whole series of key projects that either happened or are in the process of happening around the arena that we believe are just going to be jumpstarted by this announcement.”

Tarbert also discussed more about the plan to renovate Royal Farms Arena:

On why it is possible to renovate the arena:

“The reason why that’s possible is because despite the age of the Baltimore Arena, the structure of it is actually in very good shape. It’s a concrete building. It’s got a very elaborate roof structure, which is in good shape. Some of the key elements, from infrastructure standpoint, they don’t need to be redone. That’s really the key to pulling off this project. A new arena will cost you anywhere from $400 million to $500 million. Those number don’t really make sense for this market, but being able to cut that number to a third or half and use the existing building infrastructure, which brings value to the project, allows us to get a state-of-the-art arena at much less cost.”

On what the building may look like after being renovated:

“The trick to doing this and keeping the cost at what we’re estimating is to reuse much of the concrete structure — the concourses and the bowl obviously will all be upgraded, and the seating and that type of thing. What happens on the exterior is a huge opportunity. The current facility, if you look at it, it’s got blank walls for the most part. The sidewalk in the public realm is not very inviting. You’ve got surface parking all along, Hopkins Place on east side of it. The idea is to make this a much more transparent facility, which you do see in a lot of the modern structures. A lot of them are large and circular, but they’re glass. They have interesting lighting. … Those are some of the different types of ideas that Oak View and the city are looking into to make this a much more inviting facility instead of a big concrete box.”

On why this is different than other arena projects that never got off the ground:

“The big difference here is we’ve got an extremely capable group that’s passionate about Baltimore and they have the funding to do this project. In previous attempts, it’s really been the public sector or the business sector creating an idea or throwing out a concept, but the private sector in the past has never stepped up and said, ‘We can do this. We want to do it and we’re excited to do it.’ We now have that partner in Oak View.”

For more from Tarbert, listen the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Luke Jackson

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