Frank Remesch stood amid a sea of reporters in “The Bowl,” the massive rectangular open space at the heart of the newly reimagined CFG Bank Arena. Work crews and large hulking equipment feverishly completed various tasks ahead of the venue’s first big tests — a private Thursday night concert by Earth, Wind and Fire and the public debut featuring Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band on Friday night.

“You’re in for a treat,” he said as a barrage of horns blared, hydraulics hissed, and workers chattered throughout and around the arena. “This is something I never thought I would see to fruition.”

Remesch, the general manager for the arena, has worked there for 35 of its 61 years. He’s seen it all. He remembers in 1995 — the last time the venue hosted an early round of the NCAA men’s tournament — when he warned Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, Oklahoma State’s 7-foot center, that if he broke another backboard, the games in Baltimore would have to cease because the arena had run out of replacements. He was there for the slew of professional wrestling events throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He also remembers when Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, came to the arena for a rally in 2008.

But he also recalls the complaints that artists and guests had about the acoustics of the aging building as well as the logistical problems of setting up a concert there, and the lack of amenities compared to those in other top-market cities.

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“We were an ‘A’ market,” he recalled. “Now we have an ‘A’ building.”

Oak View Entertainment and general manager Frank Remesch, speaks to the press at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, set to open in April 2023.
Frank Remesch, general manager of Oak View Entertainment, speaks to the news media at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, set to open in April 2023. Remesch is excited about the changes underway at the arena where he's worked for more than three decades. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

It wasn’t a secret that Baltimore’s premier indoor music and events venue had lost its luster over the years. The sound system left much to be desired. There were few if any luxurious amenities available to guests and musical talent alike. Even the former name, Royal Farms Arena, wasn’t exactly sexy. Heck, you couldn’t even purchase the famed Royal Farms fried chicken there. (The previous deal with Royal Farms was strictly a naming rights deal, according to Remesch.)

But a $250 million privately funded renovation and name change might do the trick and return the arena, which Billboard magazine named the top-grossing venue with a capacity of less than 15,000 in North America in 2009, back to its glory days. Downtown Baltimore and the surrounding neighborhoods are counting on it.

Some say the reimagining of the arena, coupled with the recent opening of a new Lexington Market building and developer David Bramble’s plans for doing something new with Harborplace, will help turn around a struggling downtown.

“I think the arena with the Lexington Market renovation and then [Bramble’s] projects coming on, we’re really going to create a diverse and dynamic arts and entertainment district that will attract residents, visitors and businesses and revitalize the city,” said Randi Bernstein, a senior vice president and general counsel at the Oak View Group. “It’s so unique here how you have an arena, a convention center, Camden Yards, and M&T [Bank Stadium] within walking distance of each other, and how they can play off of each other. And, you know, arenas, historically, they energize cities, they create a hub of development surrounding it.”

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The California-based venue development and management company will draw upon the vast cadre of arenas and venues it has built or operates across the country, including the new UBS Arena, which is home to the NHL’s New York Islanders; Seattle’s 61-year-old Climate Pledge Arena, where the WNBA’s Seattle Storm play; and XL Center in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, where the University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams play.

After a private concert by Earth, Wind and Fire on Thursday and Friday’s Springsteen show, which comes nearly 50 years after he first played the Baltimore Arena on June 2, 1973, it will be full steam ahead with superstar acts such as the Eagles, Janet Jackson, New Edition, Anita Baker and Lizzo.

Developers and city officials alike are quick to acknowledge that the old arena was in need of work — going as far to say that major acts would skip over Baltimore and go to nearby cities with better venues such as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

The arena, designed by architect Arthur Gould Odell Jr. in the futuristic Googie style with a roofline that evokes pyramidal shapes, opened in 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center. It was part of an urban renewal effort in downtown Baltimore in the late 1950s and 1960s that also included the construction of Charles Center.

The Baltimore Civic Center was the home of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets from 1963 to 1973. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles performed at the futuristic Googie-style structure in the 1960s. (Maryland Historical Trust)

The last major renovation to the facility was completed in 1986, after which it was renamed Baltimore Arena. It has gone by other names over the years, including 1st Mariner Arena and Royal Farms Arena. The arena was home to the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets from 1963 until 1973, including when the exciting Earl “The Pearl” Monroe helped lead the Bullets to the NBA Finals in 1971, losing to Milwaukee in four games. It has also been home to multiple pro hockey franchises as well as indoor soccer, lacrosse and tennis teams. In its heyday, performers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles performed there, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to clergy there in 1966.

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Supporters of the latest renovation say the updates to the interior of the arena will do the trick and hopefully jump start a downtown area that is reeling from a population drop, the pandemic and concerns about crime.

“Some folks told me that I was crazy that we were putting lipstick on a pig,” recalled Mayor Brandon Scott. “But when you see what’s happening with our partners at Oak View Group, when you see that the tickets are selling out, you know that we now have a world-class venue right in downtown Baltimore that the taxpayers didn’t have to pay for, that will drive people into the core.”

The renovations followed years of discussion about building a new arena, including a 2007 report commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority that found the structure had “served its useful life” and should be replaced by a new 16,000-seat facility. In the end, the city chose a more immediate solution.

Oak View Group is now leasing the arena from the city for $150 million with an initial lease term of 30 years. (CFG Bank is paying the city for the naming rights under a separate agreement.)

Despite the arena being graced more recently by the likes of Rihanna and Springsteen, artists and promoters alike had told Remesch that it had become one of the worst in terms of setting up a show.

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“We’re going from being the worst show to hang, to being one of the best,” Remesch said, using lingo to describe the process of preparing the stage and sound systems, among other things.

And as for its looks, Remesch responded: “It’s hard to say one of your kids is ugly.”

The white exterior has a cleaner look, with a digital billboard replacing the large ads that once obscured Odell’s original design. The developer retained the arena’s iconic roof line, which was said to mimic the petals of Maryland’s state flower, the Black-Eyed Susan.

Among the other changes are updated outdoor lighting, new daisy-yellow-and-white signage with the name of the new arena, and two new balcony terraces — with a beverage window during concerts. The spaces, which have a capacity for 163 persons on the third floor and 140 on the fourth floor, can be rented out for private events. The redeveloped arena will also feature a large green space on the Hopkins Street side of the building. Remesch hopes eventually to utilize the exterior space for an outdoor music festival.

A newly renovated balcony area at CFG Bank Arena in downtown Baltimore, which officially reopens on April 6-7, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

With that said, most of the focus of the nearly yearlong construction project was on making over the interior of the arena.

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Crews removed the cumbersome fixed stage, adding another 65 feet of floor space for seating and standing. That makes it one of the largest arena floors in the country, Remesch said.

All vertical hard surfaces will be covered with a tectum acoustical treatment. Seats were replaced. The dated ceiling clouds have been removed. In their place, new acoustical baffle treatment has been attached to the ceiling and the underside of the balcony.

Remesch believes the enhancements will allow him to realize the true potential of the space and hold more concerts and events. Before the pandemic, the arena was able to host 105 events a year. In the future, Remesch expects to host 130. The 14,000-person facility, which gained an additional 2,000 seats during the project, provides unobstructed views from every seat in the house.

“Their worst seat in my house is the best seat,” Remesch said as he stood amid a sea of black seats framing the open center floor below. “There are no poor seats in this house.”

These changes will result in more enhanced audience experiences, according to Remesch.

“We’re already gaining more shows,” he said, noting that singer John Mayer recently announced a concert date there in October.

“This building is now made for concerts,” he said. “We’re going to focus on concerts.”

That doesn’t mean sports are an afterthought for Remesch. He’s open to going after college basketball tournament games, occasional NBA games (the old Washington Bullets used to play some games there even after the move) and UFC fights.

Although some still lament the move of the Bullets to Landover and later Washington, D.C., where they became the Washington Wizards, Remesch said not having a full-time pro hockey or basketball team has its advantages.

Sports teams would automatically eat up a huge chunk of potential concert dates, according to Remesch. He said he will now be able to book up to 60 concerts a year — up from the 25 to 30 he booked prior to the renovation. About 40 of those concerts are expected to be “A-list” acts.

Remesch is projecting that the arena will attract a million people a year — up from the 560,000 a year that came to Royal Farms Arena prior to the pandemic shutdown.

Scenes of the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, set to open in April 2023.
A pizza bar is one of the new amenities at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena in downtown Baltimore. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The reimagined interior of the arena also features opulence in common spaces that was lacking before the renovation project. Concourses now have lounge-like settings with sleek, comfy couches, ornate lighting and dark, moody colored walls that give the space an elevated, warm and cozy feel.

The venue boasts 38 suites — 26 bunker suites and 12 party suites. Each comfortably seats about 16 guests. The arena previously had two.

Its new club level features speakeasy-type bar lounges and food offerings, including smokey collard greens, corn bread and jerk chicken.

And with the new unobstructed views, guests can now watch the concert or event while waiting to purchase food or beverages.

Views of one of the private bunker lounges at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena in downtown Baltimore. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“We’re 100% perfect,” Remesch said.

Speaking of sips and bites — the offerings available to every ticket holder are aplenty.

Of course, chicken fingers, popcorn and soda will still be offered. But the arena will also include a mix of new and familiar offerings such as Nashville hot chicken sandwiches from Big Chicken, a Shaquille O’Neal-backed eatery; crab-stuffed egg rolls from Jimmy’s Famous Seafood; and BBQ, Wagyu beef sliders and meatball sliders from Premium Eats Stands.

A partnership with PepsiCo has resulted in a green pilot program to switch from single-use cups to drink containers that can be cleaned and reused. Guests will also now be able to order food and drinks from the comfort of their seats through CHEQ, the arena’s mobile ordering, delivery and social gifting partner. And the new arena will launch a year-round initiative with CareFirst that will donate unused food from concessions to food pantries and schools.

“I’m like a little kid at Christmas,” Remesch said. “You’re going to know in a few months if I’m lying or not.”

The new menu items include pretzels with beer cheese, hotdogs and sausages.
Half-smoked sausage and hot pretzels are among the offerings at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, set to open in April 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The excitement for the new arena, which had a test run when it hosted the CIAA basketball tournament in February, has been growing among Baltimoreans.

“We are thrilled to have the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena space and the return of major indoor concerts and sporting events to Baltimore,” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “With acts like Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Blink-182, KISS, among many others, there is truly something for everyone to enjoy. These large-scale events and concerts will bring thousands of jobs and endless one-of-a-kind experiences to residents and visitors alike.”

According to Visit Baltimore’s annual report for 2022, recreation and entertainment accounted for 13% of Baltimore’s overnight visitor spending, which was $1.8 billion. For daytime visitor spending, which was $858 million, recreation and entertainment represented 24%.

The arena upgrades come as the blocks surrounding it remain in transition.

Kitty-corner from the arena, across Lombard Street, is the hulking, empty Holiday Inn, which was built in 1964 and at one time featured the city’s only revolving rooftop restaurant space. The hotel shuttered in 2020.

A few blocks away, Pandora, the international jewelry company, announced in December its intentions to leave Baltimore and relocate its operations in New York City. The Danish jewelry company’s regional head office had been located in Baltimore since 2015. Before that, it was located in Columbia.

But there have been additions.

The Center Club Bar, part of the renovations at CFG Arena. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The Lexington Market reopened a new south market building in October, after a $45 million redevelopment project that took four years to complete.

And the Hippodrome Theater at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center — fresh from a Chris Rock special that was aired live on Netflix — is going ahead with a $20 million project to add a new 20,000-square-foot events space. The new space is scheduled to open this fall.

Ron Legler, the president of the Hippodrome Theatre, said he feels positive that the various changes are creating new reasons for residents and tourists to come to the sports and entertainment district.

“I think it’s exciting to think about a Baltimore where you can go to a baseball stadium, football stadium, and arena, within 10 blocks,” he said. “You can’t name another city where you can do all those things within a 10-block radius.”

Legler has experience with the Oak View Group, which operates the concessions at his venue. He said he’s eager to collaborate with the operators of the renovated arena.

“We want to make sure we are bringing the best experience for the audience,” Legler said. “We want to change that narrative. The next decade will define the new Baltimore. When you stop with the narrative of ‘we’re scary’ and the new narrative of ‘we are moving on,’ we’ll have attracted thousands of people to a beautiful part of our city.”

Hallie Miller contributed to this story.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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