Part IV - Ticket to success?
How other cities have used new arenas to spur downtown development.
Tulsa isn’t the only city to invest in a new arena in hopes of revitalizing its downtown. Several other communities have done the same thing, with various degrees of success.
Oklahoma City built the 19,700-seat Ford Center in 2002 at a cost of $89 million as part of the larger Metropolitan Area Projects plan, a series of nine capital improvement projects funded by a temporary sales tax increase that eventually raised more than $309 million.
The opening of the Ford Center enabled Oklahoma City to attract the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Hornets when Hurricane Katrina devastated the team’s home, the New Orleans Arena, shortly before the start of the 2005-06 season. The Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City for two seasons from 2005-2007.
That temporary arrangement proved so successful in terms of attendance and corporate support that Oklahoma City’s stock as a permanent NBA city skyrocketed.
When a group of Oklahoma City businessmen bought the struggling Seattle SuperSonics, it didn’t take long for the franchise to find its way from Puget Sound to the southern Great Plains — where it was renamed the Thunder shortly before beginning play at the Ford Center last fall.
That move was largely sealed when local voters approved a one-cent, 15-month sales tax in March 2008 to fund several upgrades to the building.
But that fast track to landing a major-league sports franchise has not been duplicated elsewhere.
Kansas City built the $276 million, 18,500-seat Sprint Center in 2007 partly in hopes of luring the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins. That effort apparently ended the same year when The Sports & Exhibition Authority for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County reached an agreement with the club to build a new $290 million arena.
On the plus side, the Sprint Center attracted 140 events and more than 1.3 million guests in its first year of operation, while Pollstar magazine, a concert trade publication, ranked the arena as No. 30 on its list of top concert venues worldwide. That included a U.S. ranking of No. 18. And according to city officials, Kansas City led the nation with more than $3 billion in downtown construction in 2007.
A few hundred miles down the Arkansas River from Tulsa sits the Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., an 18,000-seat, $83 million arena that opened in 1999 as part of a larger effort to refurbish that city’s waterfront.
The arena’s presence has allowed the city to attract many of the same music artists — Billy Joel, Elton John, the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few — who have appeared or will appear in Tulsa. Paired with the new Clinton Presidential Library in nearby Little Rock, as well as a refurbished Old State Territorial Capitol Building, tourism in the area has been revitalized, city officials say.
In Wichita, Kan., a new arena is about nine months from opening, according to Bill Wilson, retail and real estate reporter with the Wichita Eagle. It’s part of a plan to connect an already renovated Old Town, the arena and the river to create an entertainment area.
Additionally, two developers from Minnesota are buying vacant office space and building upscale condos and apartments. Revitalization efforts had been stymied “because we were leaderless for quite a while,” Wilson says, referring to Wichita’s loss of its city manager and downtown development director.
“There was nowhere for developers to go,” he adds.
With the hiring of new individuals in those key positions, things began moving.
However, not much is happening in terms of arena-related development, he says.
“The economy is a negative,” he says. “ … Everybody’s on the sidelines.”
Farther north, the Grand Rapids, Mich., metro is somewhat smaller than Tulsa, about 200,000 people. The city has become a regionally competitive center with a lively downtown.
The Van Andel Arena, built in 1996, “created a monster domino effect, transforming the downtown into an entertainment district that has expanded its boundaries in every direction,” says Carole Valade, editor of Grand Rapids magazine, by e-mail.
“‘The Van’ is a multi-state draw to the city and is ranked by Billboard Magazine Venues Today as the fourth-highest-grossing mid-sized arena in the country,” she notes.
A recent survey taken by the city to assess the urban housing market — done in part to avoid overbuilding — actually showed that the city should prepare for 3,100 new households in downtown alone, up from a 2004 estimate of 2,500, Valade says. By comparison, a decade after the arena opened, there were 1,624 condo units downtown.
“Last year, the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority expanded its tax base boundaries to two additional ‘neighborhoods’ south of the arena where a great deal of development continues, including an ‘Avenue of the Arts’ that includes galleries, college student lofts, apartments and condos,” Valade says.
A similar expansion five years ago has brought in bookstores, coffee shops, health food and grocery stores, fine dining and galleries.
Valade adds that development has been a two-decade effort in which city leaders created public/private partnerships to fund the stimulus for change and “paid it forward.” One was Jay Van Andel, co-founder of Amway Corp., whose “most remarkable contributions in my mind were both preservation and future-oriented,” she says.