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  Pumping New Blood to Heart of a City

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 12, 1994; Page D09

Owner Abe Pollin's plans to send his Washington Bullets and Capitals packing to a new downtown District arena may have surprised local residents, but the move is nothing new to sports developers across the country.

In contrast to recent decades when sports teams fled for the suburban hills in search of greener pastures and bigger parking revenues, the '90s are beginning to see more and more owners opting to build on city sites.

"It just makes much more sense," said Mike Hallmark, senior vice president of Ellerbe Becket, a national architectural firm that specializes in sports structures. "I always compare sports arenas to theaters. No one would think of building the Kennedy Center in the suburbs."

The Cleveland Cavaliers are doing it. The Phoenix Suns did it a couple of years ago. Minnesota's Twins and Vikings both have done it, too. And as sports stadiums and arenas once again start to have more in common with skyscrapers than shopping malls, both the teams and the cities they are moving back into are reaping the benefits.

"In the '70s and '80s, everyone wanted to locate in the suburbs, figuring the land was cheaper, the areas were safer and everybody drives anyway," said Tim Mueller of KPMG/Peat Marwick, a sports consulting and accounting firm. "Now, commuter and entertainment patterns are changing. People want more in one area, and they want that area to be downtown, in the middle."

So far the most notable benefit from the new-style city and arena mix has been the revitalization of the downtown areas.

"From the start, we were looking for a downtown location for the {America West} arena," said Rich Dozer, the Suns' chief operating officer. "It was important to us to help regentrify the city, and we have. Even the crime rate has gone down here."

The Suns moved from Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which technically is within Phoenix city limits, to the more centrally located America West in the summer of 1992. At just under a million square feet, the luxurious arena has inspired a new crop of businesses and restaurants in an area that had been faltering economically.

The Twins, who moved to Minneapolis's Metrodome from Bloomington, Minn., in 1982, experienced the same phenomenon. The club moves an additional two to three million people in and out of the city each year, many of whom stop somewhere along the way to buy a meal, a T-shirt or a roll of film. Those purchases add up to big money for the area around the Metrodome, which in turn throws benefits back to the Twins.

"It's important for teams to help revitalize their cities because if we have a decaying downtown, people think of us as crime-ridden and don't want to come to games," Twins President Jerry Bell said. "The new Pistons arena in Auburn Hills {Mich.} is a prime example. They had to build out in the suburbs because Detroit is already decayed. We don't want that to happen here or elsewhere."

Having good restaurants and shops nearby also helps a team by giving ticket holders more to do before and after games. Just as the Orioles have found countless benefits in being close to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, teams across the country are learning the value of their neighbors.

The Cavaliers, who just finished their last season in the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, already are anticipating increased ticket sales when they move into the new Gateway Arena in downtown Cleveland.

"This is going to change the dynamic of attending a Cavaliers game," team president Tom Chestnut said. "If you work downtown, you can stay around for dinner, then the game, then go out to a bar. In Richfield, you get on the highway, you the game, then you go home. There's a synergy of activities downtown that Richfield just can't provide."

Gateway will also give the Cavaliers a chance to host events such as the NBA all-star game. Previous attempts have been futile, as Richfield doesn't have enough hotels to support all the players, fans and media those events bring. Transportation was a factor in Cleveland too, as the city has a modest train system with a stop right at Gateway. Richfield is accessible solely by car.

But the move back to the cities is not completely based on practicality. A lot of it has to do with heart.

"The sport-place bond where fans become attached to teams is real, even when the team is a perennial loser like the Cubs or the old Senators," said John Rooney, a professor of sports geography at Oklahoma State University. "Having the team based downtown gives the city a little more credibility and bragging rights."

One of the few areas where owners have been hurt by new downtown locations has been parking. Teams with suburban facilities can collect up to $3 million a year in parking revenue, while the revenue from downtown arenas usually goes to the cities.

This has been a sticking point in some negotiations, although Hallmark says that should not be the case.

"What owners sometimes forget is that the parking revenue still comes in, it just goes to a different place," he said. "So you make a slightly different deal with the city because they're getting money from parking. Who cares if people parachute in? The overall money is still going to be the same."

In the case of the Capitals and Bullets, parking could be the least of Pollin's concerns. A swamp of bureaucracy and a hailstorm of protest from various District and Maryland interests probably will stand between him and the potential Gallery Place site, but experts say the hassle is worthwhile.

"The bottom line is that everybody benefits," Rooney said. "Central cities are basically becoming recreational and tourist centers. They're essentially playgrounds, and that's where a sports team belongs."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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