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Montgomery County arena back on table

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Local entrepreneurs have restarted negotiations to build an 8,000-seat arena resembling the Patriot Center near the Shady Grove Metro station, a project first envisioned before the economic crisis.

In his first term, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett proposed building a small arena that could host concerts as well as community events such as high school sports championships and graduations. The county selected a partnership formed by attorney William Askinazi and Tom Doyle to negotiate creation of an arena in late 2007.

Since then, the partners had to endure the collapse of the national and local economy, but Askinazi said they have since lined up many of the backers required to build the stadium and are negotiating for the needed land.

The ideal site, Askinazi said, is an eight-acre parcel where Metro currently operates surface parking lots at the Shady Grove station. Askinazi, a former business development official in former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s administration and a state senate candidate, said his company D&A Sports and Entertainment Group was prepared to finance and build an $85 million stadium and a 1,000-space replacement parking garage for Metro on the site.

Askinazi, of Potomac, said his experience using sports and entertainment venues for economic development purposes at the state level led him to the idea. “I knew a lot about stadiums and arenas in Baltimore, but I was was always perplexed by why we don’t have an arena in Montgomery County,” he said.

Askinazi said he and Doyle had lined up construction giant Skanska to build the project and arena manager SMG to operate it. He said he had spoken to retailers including Charlie Chiang’s Restaurants and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream about opening there, as well as to operators of the Towers Club Tysons Corner about how to create a similar venue as part of the project. “We’re going to do a similar Montgomery County business high-end meeting place,” he said.

‘A well-defined niche’

A 2007 study on the idea commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority found that an arena of 6,500-8,000 seats “would enjoy a well-defined niche comprised of its mid-sized scale, location, adaptability and newness of facility.”

Leggett is backing the idea because the county lacks a place to hold large community events such as high school championships and graduations, said Steve Silverman, county director of economic development. “Graduations are often held at DAR Constitution Hall because it’s the only place that holds 4,000, and they used to be held at some churches in Prince George’s,” he said.

Securing the land remains a major obstacle. Leggett has committed to not putting money into the deal, but has begun discussions about acquiring the land from Metro needed for the stadium and could commit land to the project instead. Silverman said preliminary discussions began recently and should mature over the summer. “The first step is to try to figure out if WMATA is interested, and the second thing is to try to figure out if we can make something work in respect to the county,” he said.

Metro will consider the county’s proposal, according to Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas. “We would evaluate it from all the perspectives that we usually take,” she said in an e-mail. A formal proposal would require public vetting and approval by the transit agency’s board of directors.

Askinazi said the Metro site is the most preferable. “Arenas will fail without government involvement. We’ve done our homework and those arenas that succeed require real government partnerships,” he said. But he said he and Doyle had also lined up privately owned sites near Shady Grove that could be purchased and then operated in partnership with the county. “If we don’t get it with WMATA we are going to go forward,” he said.

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