Saturday, May 23, 2015



Study's rosy scenario no substitute for answers to downtown arena questions

Impact on Coliseum, funding, public opinion are key unknowns

Thursday, May 21, 2015 - 12:01 am
Mayor Tom Henry, who was privately telling people earlier this year that a new downtown arena probably wouldn't happen, has now appointed a committee to explore that very possibility on the basis of the latest draft of a $39,000 study that strongly suggests the answer should be "yes."
Confused? Well, so am I -- especially since city officials only last week refused to acknowledge the committee's widely rumored existence and insisted they had not yet received the "final" version of the taxpayer-funded study by Hunden Stretegic Partners. But cut through all the clutter and only three questions really matter:
Could a 5,500-seat arena costing up to $63 million adjacent to Parkview Field and the Grand Wayne Center support itself and even boost the economy without seriously undermining existing venues?
Does the public want it?
And where would that money come from, with the Capital Improvement Board and Legacy fund already expected to provide millions of dollars for riverfront development with far more needed later on?
If the study is accurate, the first question has partially been answered. Far from competing with the smaller 2,471-seat Embassy, the arena would in fact attract different acts and could even benefit the historic theater and event center by drawing more people downtown.
As for the Coliseum, where the main arena can seat up to 13,000 for some events, the study suggests the county-owned venue "has a difficult time accommodating all of the events that would like to use the facility . . . some events are accommodated in alternate spaces (not the primary arena bowl) that user groups do not prefer . . . there are current users (such as the Mad Ants basketball team) who would prefer a smaller, more intimate arena setting (and) . . . there is a gap between the large capacity at the Coliseum and the small Capacity at the Embassy."
Henry called the project "transformational" Wednesday, and that was no accident. That's one of the key yardsticks used to determine eligibility for funding through the city's Legacy program, created through the sale of its former electric utility. The fund has a cash balance of nearly $40 million, and could have $88 million by 2025 even after deducting the $6 million initial riverfront request. The Capital Improvement Board, which oversees food and beverage taxes, could also be tapped, Henry suggested.
It's probably also no accident that some of the committee members -- such as Chairman Chuck Surack of Sweetwater Sound and Parkview Health CEO Mike Packnett have access to vast private capital. Naming rights could bring in millions. SweetPark Arena? Henry probably wouldn't object.
And the study suggests the investment would be rewarded: Attendance at various events of 186,100 in the first year increasing to 223,600 in year 10; creation of 169 jobs in the first year; 20-year economic impact in new spending of $293 million and new taxes of $15.6 million. (The Coliseum attracts more than 1 million visitors annually with n estimated economic impact of $100 million.)
Although the study acknowledges the potential for adversely affecting the Coliseum, it also states that "for the regional markets, there are several examples of how a new arena venue, even a small one, can provide a resurgence of energy, money, interest and human life into the city's downtown . . . Overall, the regional arena facilities show that even in small- or mid-sized markets, multiple facilities can be well-utilized in a single market."
Fortunately, both the Embassy and Coliseum are represented on the committee. Embassy Board member Gary Wasson said he is "willing to take a look" at the study but will work to protect the Embassy's interests. Coliseum Trustee Dennis Sutton, said he wants to do what is necessary to benefit the community but pointed out that the Coliseum "does a very good job."
It does indeed, as does the Embassy. And with both community gems in the middle of multimillion-dollar improvement projects, it would be foolhardy to move forward with an arena that is clearly more "want" than "need" should either suffer in the process. That is specially true for the Coliseum which, as a county-owned building, could pose a liability to taxpayers should it not continue to support itself.
Privately, coliseum and Embassy officials have expressed skepticism and concern. For now, given the study's optimism, I'll keep an open mind. But committee members would serve the public well by not only gauging the community's desire for a new arena but by doing what they can to assess the untapped market that could be accessed through a new venue and to what degree the Coliseum would be hurt or helped by losing smaller tenants and acts.
Henry's told me his earlier pessimism was based upon his uncertainty as to whether the timing was right for such an undertaking. He seems more optimistic now, but it's still a good question -- one that deserves a factual, impartial answer from the committee and input from voters in November.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.
redgilbert (Report abuse)
MAY 22 2015 10:47 PM
Somehow, our muddy waters appear to have fostered a life of their own in spite of smelly and ugly riverbanks. While sometimes devastating flooding and soil loss thru unmanaged erosion and upstream livestock mega sites continue to be ongoing threats, there is no certainty of the pleasantness of the venue. The St Joe upstream of the Appleseed Park remain the only water anywhere near the quality in the other cities cited as examples. Any idea where those millions of tomato plants come from thriving on the river banks? Undigested seeds!
Without an entire watershed enforced upstream, this "development" is no "legacy".
Now comes the downtown arena...transformational. Indeed. With Mr. Surack's recent "education" at the hands of the referendum voters, his inclusion talk is most welcome. However, history of public empowerment and governmental accountability in this city is woefully NOT on his side.

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