With the grand opening of downtown Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena set for Friday, April 7, it’s only appropriate that the CEO of the developer, the Oak View Group, recalled a conversation with that night’s entertainment, Bruce Springsteen, to underscore OVG’s approach to the renovation.
“Bruce once told me that the venues he likes the best are the old ‘sweatboxes’,” said Tim Leiweke, who longtime area sports fans may recall as the first general manager of the Baltimore Blast soccer team. “We kept that in mind and maintained the feel of the original building.”
While the first sporting event at the arena in late February will honor a commitment to host the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, the finishing touches of the $200 million project will be completed just before Springsteen and his E Street Band hit the stage.
That concert, Leiweke said, will represent a new dawn for the 14,000-seat arena as the city works to revitalize its Downtown.
Nuts ’n bolts
While pointing out that OVG which includes NBA star Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures, Grammy-winning singer Pharrell Williams and Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis among its investors has built (or rebuilt) six arenas in the past 14 months, Leiweke said his main question to SCI Architects, the lead designer, during the project’s first stages concerned how to reinvent the building.
“What we found was that its bones were good,” he said. “The biggest issues were to remove the stage (an infamous presence since the arena opened) and make the adjacent wings usable.”
Also among the numerous renovations to the arena were adding seats as well as suites, with many underneath the lower deck; refurbishing concourses; upgrading concession areas; and updating the building’s overall appearance in a sustainable way, using locally-sourced materials, including steel from the original venue.
Other new features include LED lighting; low flow and waterless fixtures; removal of the arena’s signature ceiling tiles to refine the acoustics and amplify the audio experience; renovations to the venue’s back-of-house, including an expanded loading dock; and updated telecommunications infrastructure, wireless network and video/network/security systems.
The overhaul will allow CFG Bank Arena to contend for more events and hopefully reach its goal of 120 per year, including many that have traditionally bypassed Baltimore for other markets with modern facilities. That would further drive economic growth for the city, where the project has already created approximately 500 jobs during the 12 months of construction.
Committed to prioritizing participation from small, local and diverse businesses throughout the construction process, OVG reached its goal to award 27% and 10% of construction subcontracts to Minority Business Enterprises and Women’s Business Enterprises, respectively. The developer also focused on diversity in the financing of the project to ensure Minority Depository Institutions were among its lending partners.
For instance, the Black-owned Harbor Bank of Maryland is a member of the loan syndicate led by Truist Bank.
Leiweke is not alone in his optimism about what the CFG Bank Arena will do for the city and the state. For instance, Al Hutchinson, executive director of Visit Baltimore, said it “will have an incredible economic impact on our city.
“We can use the CIAA tournament as a great example,” he said, “because (during its last visit) it brought in nearly $20 million in economic impact to our local hotels, restaurants and retail shops, and supported 1,159 part-time and full-time jobs.”
Hutchinson added that the arena will “further enhance Baltimore’s events and convention offerings,” with the Warner Street District, Baltimore Peninsula, Harbor Point, Harborplace and Lexington Market also located close to Downtown. “These exciting new projects will bring thousands of jobs and endless one-of-a-kind experiences to residents and visitors alike.”
Anirban Basu agreed. The chairman and CEO of Baltimore’s Sage Policy Group said the renovated arena “represents an important step in fomenting a Downtown renaissance. Many observers will point out that the city lacks NBA and NHL franchises, as well as a big-time collegiate basketball program that would make regular use of the arena the way that the Georgetown University does” at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
However, not having frequent users actually “offers an advantage to Baltimore’s arena,” Basu said. “While Capital One Arena is frequently utilized by the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and Georgetown Hoyas, Baltimore’s arena is more likely to be available for major musical and other acts” for that reason. “That positions it to be a regional as opposed to a local, destination, spinning off significant economic impacts in the process.
“That said,” he said, “one hopes that the Wizards or the Capitals will occasionally hold a game in Baltimore to extend their franchises and perhaps expand their television audiences in the process.”
The new arena could also attract a minor league franchise, such as an NBA G-League team. The G-League operates in “B” markets “like Birmingham, Austin and Grand Rapids,” said Basu. “Baltimore would fit.”
Basu’s observations were not lost on Amanda Hof, executive director of Visit Howard County. “As travel continues to return from COVID-19, travelers want entertainment and they’ll go wherever needed to see a certain performer,” she said. “Entertainment is key in attracting visitations.”
Hof also said for the new arena’s larger events, Howard’s hotels “might get some overflow and we can target that crowd, especially by offering a lower rate. So there will be some compression.”
Kristen Pironis also offered a regional perspective. “A thriving CFG Bank Arena will provide a boost to the region’s economy. A positive experience in Baltimore plants the seeds for return trips to explore what neighboring counties have to offer,” said the executive director of Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County. “A strong Baltimore makes a strong region.”
Interestingly, those positive experiences will be based more on entertainment than sports. While OVG will offer sporting events at the arena, Leiweke is not actively seeking a sports tenant. So today’s efforts are now mostly about booking events, marketing the facility and heightening the guest experience with increased safety measures.
“We’re partnering with (Ted Leonsis’) Monumental Sports & Entertainment, partially because their facilities are overbooked. CFG can provide another option to accommodate various shows,” he said, echoing Basu in adding he’s also hopeful of landing Wizards and the Capitals exhibition games.
All told, an exciting rebirth has finally come to a venue that had been obsolete for decades. “But while CFG now has the modern amenities,” said Leiweke, “it’s still small enough to feel like one of those hot, sweaty halls Springsteen longs for.”