The end for Baltimore’s ESPN Zone

Posted: 12:39 pm Wed, June 9, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

The closing of Baltimore’s ESPN Zone on Wednesday will not only leave 150 people unemployed, it will leave a huge hole in a premier, 170,000-square-foot downtown development in a still-recovering economy.

Owner Walt Disney Co. announced the shuttering of its five, standalone sports-themed restaurants on Wednesday. Roughly 1,000 employees nationwide at ESPN Zones in Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, New York and Las Vegas will be affected, according to Leigh Friedman, ESPN Zone’s regional marketing manager in Baltimore.

The Zone is a major tenant in the Inner Harbor’s Power Plant building, which was developed and reopened in 1997 by Baltimore-based The Cordish Cos. The restaurant was a founding tenant of the building, which had been closed for the 10 years prior, and in 1998, it was the first ESPN Zone to open in the country.

Zed Smith, a vice president of Cordish Co., said in a statement the Zone’s location makes it attractive to potential tenants.

“We will replace the ESPN Zone with an equally spectacular venue,” Smith said. “We have always had tremendous interest in the space from leading companies nationwide and we have already started receiving inquiries from around the country.”

Rene Daniel, a principal with Trout, Daniel & Associates, a commercial real estate broker in Timonium, said the space’s large size would not be a hindrance to finding a new tenant. A sports-themed restaurant or another destination dining establishment would work well, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a tragedy, I think it’s a corporate decision,” Daniel said. “It doesn’t reflect on the value of the property. … The property is more valuable now than when they made the deal because of what’s grown up around it.”

Friedman described the restaurant’s employees as a family, noting many had been there for years and about 12 had been there since the day it opened. She said the employees were given one week’s notice of the closing.

“It’s quick,” Friedman said. “People are sad. It really does feel like a community here.”

Behind the restaurant’s loading dock Wednesday morning, employees, mostly in their 20s and 30s, gathered before heading inside to open for the day. The mood was subdued as several employees greeted each other with, “Did you hear?”

Disney is issuing its employees severance packages that include career placement help and extended medical benefits.

Friedman said that for the last year company executives had worked on trying to keep the business. In a statement, Rick Alessandri, senior vice president of ESPN, said running the establishments had become “a long-term business challenge.”

Like many restaurants, the Zone has been hit by the recession — and with its adult arcade and sports games, it’s also more expensive to operate.

“It’s just a difficult decision and something that was based on so many factors,” Friedman said. “It’s not a decision anybody wanted to make.”

Friedman said Baltimore’s closure wasn’t necessarily a reflection of the location’s performance, noting it had been an across-the-board decision. Disney also closed ESPN Zones in Atlanta and Denver last year, and just two restaurants attached to Disney properties will remain after next week — one in Anaheim’s Disneyland and another restaurant at L.A. Live.

The Baltimore restaurant was often the host of sports-related events and drew crowds on weekends and during sports games. On most days during the week, people can be found outside its doors waiting for it to open at 11:30 a.m.

On Wednesday, roughly 20 people were lined up outside, many to see documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Burns, who had thrown out the first pitch the night before for Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s debut, was there promoting a new chapter, “The Tenth Inning,” to his 1994 documentary series “Baseball.”