Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Council still wants answers on arena

Possible location still to be determined; SoccerPlex ruled out

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Some county officials are questioning the fiscal sense of backing an upcounty arena during budget cuts and hiring freezes, but others say more research is needed to determine whether the project would be a good investment.

Montgomery County Department of Economic Development representatives requested $125,000 from the County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee last week to continue studying whether to build an 8,000- to 10,000-seat multi-use indoor arena in the upcounty. A study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority in November 2006 determined that a sports and entertainment arena in Germantown could bring in an estimated $7.5 million in net revenue.

‘‘It’s not being built tomorrow or next week, but it’s being considered favorably,” said Tom Doyle, owner of the Maryland Nighthawks, a minor league basketball team, and co-founder of D & A Sports and Entertainment Group, which was awarded exclusive negotiating rights for the arena in January. Doyle spoke to The Gazette in an interview last week.

The county allocated $200,000 — including $50,000 from the state — for the first part of the project’s feasibility phase, which determined that Montgomery could support an arena. The second phase, which was discussed during last week’s committee meeting, will address cost, revenues, programming, location and who would operate the facility.

‘‘It’s a little awkward in that we can’t answer a lot of questions that folks want to ask,” said Tina Benjamin, an Economic Development spokeswoman. Those questions will be addressed by the study, she said, which will take about a year to complete.

‘‘We’re still trying to determine if it does make sense for the county to invest in this,” Benjamin said. ‘‘ ...If it doesn’t look like a good deal for the county, we’re not going to fund it.”

But some on the committee wondered who would reap the most benefits.

‘‘If this is such a great opportunity and there’s so much revenue, then the private sector should be falling over itself to build it,” Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said at the April 19 worksession.

Doyle, of Potomac, disagreed in an interview and said the arena, which could also host graduations and conferences, would be a community asset.

‘‘This isn’t just spending money and getting nothing back,” Doyle said, adding that public money is necessary to ensure the venture is a good investment for private companies. ‘‘...I’ve lived in this county all my life and I’m very sensitive to spending taxpayer money.”

Doyle said in a November 2006 interview with The Gazette that the arena could cost $30 million to $40 million to build.

‘‘This is just another thing we could be holding the bag on if we’re not careful,” Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park said during the meeting.

The issues raised by the committee were more indicative of a lack of communication with the economic development department than an indictment of the arena itself, said Council President and committee chairman Michael J. Knapp, who joined the committee in late March.

‘‘I’ve been kind of pursuing it separate and apart, so I assumed everybody had the same level of knowledge that I had,” said Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, who has previously voiced his support for the project. Knapp said he still had questions about how the arena would be funded and operated but was in favor further study.

The Council is expected to vote on the amendment in May.

Site still under discussionMontgomery College’s Germantown campus has seemingly emerged as a frontrunner in discussions over where the proposed arena should be located.

‘‘We have been cooperative in allowing the interested parties to come visit the campus and answer questions about the feasibility study,” said provost Hercules Pinkney, adding that the college had not yet received a specific proposal.

‘‘We don’t have an official position because we have nothing to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to,” he said. ‘‘...The arena would be one additional project that would impinge on the land itself, and we have to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the needs of the students.”

The Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which are currently under consideration for sale, were included by the county as a possibility, but the site’s owners say the arena was never seriously discussed.

The Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, in the South Germantown Recreational Park, was also mentioned, but the property would not be compatible with the arena, site representatives said.

‘‘We have had a discussion, but the idea of having it here was dismissed pretty early on,” said Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation, which operates the SoccerPlex. Traffic and parking were concerns, she said.