By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Proponents of a proposed sports and entertainment arena in Montgomery County are exploring the possibility of locating it at Montgomery College's Germantown campus, with minor league hockey and basketball teams as potential tenants.
This combination has emerged as an early option for the proposed facility, which could include 6,500 to 8,500 seats and generate $2.4 million in tax revenue annually.
With an in-depth feasibility study underway, and the county wrestling with budget shortfalls, Montgomery officials have not given their official blessing to the proposal. But they hope to have a solid plan to consider by the end of the year, with design ideas, cost estimates and specifics about how a public-private partnership might work.
In December, the county awarded Rockville-based D&A Sports and Entertainment Group the exclusive right to negotiate with the county. D&A has met with college officials on several occasions, although the community college has not given its approval for the project.
"What we hope to have by the end of the year is another decision point," said Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for the county executive.
County Executive Isiah Leggett's proposed budget for next fiscal year includes $125,000 to further develop feasibility plans for an arena.
Still, Lacefield said, "There are really critical capital budget needs that we have in a lot of areas: schools, transportation, public safety. And those come first. But looking beyond, if we're interested in doing something like this in the future, we need to do the groundwork now."
Proponents say the arena would become a gathering point in Montgomery for concerts, sports tournaments, trade shows, programs for children, tennis matches and other events. Parents with children in the county's largest high schools could attend graduations there, rather than traveling to facilities in the District or Prince George's County.
There would be two or three anchor tenants, likely to be sports teams, to bring in regular crowds.
"It would be a true civic arena," said Bill Askinazi, one of the proposal's principal backers, who said he became sold on the idea as he watched other counties succeed with similar projects while he was assistant secretary of business and economic development in the administration of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), whose district includes Germantown, said the appeal of an arena is considerable. Such a multipurpose facility, he said, might be comparable to the Patriot Center at George Mason University, which hosts community gatherings and concerts as well as college events.
With nearly a million residents in Montgomery, "we don't have any venue like that on this side of the river that can provide that kind of amenity to our residents," Knapp said. "Right now, if you want to go see any live performing act, you are driving 45 minutes to get there."
A preliminary report on the proposal's feasibility, completed in June by Sage Policy Group and Towson University's Center for Applied Business and Economic Research, suggested that Montgomery's demographics and market conditions would support a mid-size arena. The report said it would not detract from the Music Center at Strathmore or the Montgomery conference center, which bring in different audiences.
Hercules Pinkney, vice president and provost of Montgomery College's Germantown campus, said that the institution is aware that it has become "one of the top sites" for a proposed arena, but that it cannot consider the idea until there is a formal proposal.
Pinkney noted that the college has major expansion plans of its own, which include a business park, business incubator for start-up companies and a bioscience education center.
"The arena would have to be looked at in conjunction with what has already been planned to make sure we can do all of it and not negatively impact education and services to our students," Pinkney said.
If the proposed arena were located at the campus, it could include classrooms for students and the incorporation of a program for the study of sports medicine, Askinazi said.
One of the biggest questions since the proposal was first floated has been how to pay for such a project.
That is still under discussion, but in an interview, Askinazi, a partner and general counsel of D&A, said that private funding would cover the "brick and mortar" costs of the project, and public funding might be sought for such infrastructure as sewers, lighting and parking. The project could cost $50 million to $60 million, he said.
"We have the private money," he said. "We've had investors lined up for over a year." Askinazi said that the greatest challenge might be "keeping the community will and the political will, which we were fortunate to have early on."
D&A was created by lawyers Tom Doyle, owner of the Maryland Nighthawks, a men's professional basketball team in Montgomery, and Askinazi for the purpose of developing an arena. Both men live in Montgomery.
The county selected D&A for exclusive negotiations based on "their commitment to minimize the public sector's risk and their vision for a true community asset," according to a memo written this month to the council by Pradeep Ganguly, Montgomery's director of economic development.