When The Dunk reopens in Providence on Sept. 5, the renovated arena will seat 14,000 for concerts, 12,500 for basketball games and offer 20 luxury suites.
That falls about 5,000 seats and 40 suites shy of the standard required by most major league hockey or basketball franchises. But Providence isn’t in the hunt for an NHL or NBA team. It’s going after family entertainment events and conventions, while hosting minor league hockey and college teams. The MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., followed a similar strategy in 2005.
Providence and Springfield each spent about $80 million to renovate, less than one third of the cost of building a new arena. Both cities claim to be thrilled with the results.
Today, Hartford is trying to decide what to do with its aging civic center — a 30-year-old concrete dinosaur smack in the middle of downtown. Local leaders favorbuilding a new arena with an eye toward bringing back pro hockey — the NHL Hartford Whalers left the city in 1997 — or luring a National Basketball Association team.
“Renovations are the last choice because it is unlikely that this would attract an NBA or NHL team,” said Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. “Our focus is on the corporate support for this building.”
That anti-renovation sentiment is echoed by Northland AEG, which manages the XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center) for the state until 2013 when its lease expires and the city assumes control.
“From the Northland AEG perspective, we are very actively involved in finding a solution to make a new facility happen,” said Charles H. Steedman, senior vice president and general manager of the XL Center.
Steedman has been meeting privately with a MetroHartford Alliance task force comprised of business and public officials, including Perez, who are evaluating whether the project would have the necessary financial support from Hartford’s corporate community.
State and city leaders acknowledge that something has to be done. The arena has been operating in the red, losing about $3 million a year. Its trade show and concert business have dropped off dramatically due to competition from the three-year-old state-owned Connecticut Convention Center in downtown Hartford and Native American casinos in the southeastern part of the state.
The arena also took more than a $1 million annual revenue hit when the city sold the civic center’s adjacent parking facility to Northland Investment Corp. for its Hartford 21 project.
Regardless, it counted nearly 700,000 visitors and 11 concerts in 2007.
The city and the state have each paid for consultant studies costing $159,000 and $115,000, respectively, to evaluate market demand and the economic feasibility of a new arena.
The analyses concluded that the city isn’t likely to attract a major pro team without modernizing or expanding. If it chooses to build a new arena, the city could expect revenues, attendance and jobs to rise, but it shouldn’t assume it would prevail in the fierce competition for a major league team.
While Hartford is tentatively moving towards building new, officials in Providence and Springfield are singing the praises of their transformed facilities, noting that bookings and revenues are up.
Both replaced concrete exterior walls with large glass windows, dramatically changing the structures’ dreary cave-like lobbies into bright and inviting entrances. They also added square footage and state-of-the-art infrastructure improvements.
Before the renovation project, the Providence facility carried the nickname “The Dump.” After three summers of construction, The Dunkin Donuts Center is now known by its proper nickname, “The Dunk.”
Despite the construction commotion — it was closed for six months in 2007 — The Dunk welcomed more than 550,000 visitors to 109 events, including eight concerts, 40 AHL Providence Bruins games and 18 Providence College men’s basketball and hockey games.
One reason for its success during the construction phase was that its 20 luxury boxes were presold, said Leonard Lepore, general manager. “We sold out all of our luxury suites in one day. We now have a waiting list.”
Hartford’s XL Center is by no means in the same sad shape the The Dunk was in prior to its renovations, said Steedman of the XL Center. “We will improve [the XL Center], but the infrastructure — ice surface, heat and cooling system, the building itself — all work.”
The XL Center was considered state-of-the-art in the 1980s, but the model has changed for major downtown arenas, Steedman said.
That’s one reason Providence not only improved the infrastructure of its arena, but also redesigned it. Lepore said it is like new.
Lepore noted that without a major league tenant and with the gradual erosion of the concert industry over the past decade, Providence doesn’t need more than 14,000 seats. Building 16,000 seats would be like building a church to accommodate the peak crowd on Easter Sunday, he said.
Providence’s more modest goal is to draw convention business that brings people downtown to patronize its restaurants and mall, Lepore said. The Dunk’s renovations include a pedestrian bridge connecting to the city’s convention center.
Cheerleading In Springfield
Officials in Springfield, Mass., also target convention traffic. The renovated and expanded Center (formerly the Springfield Civic Center) also successfully attracts dance and cheerleading competitions as well as culinary events.
Matt Hollander, general manager of the MassMutual Center, expects the center to host more than 200 events in 2008 and sees revenues continuing to climb, year over year.
“We are optimistic about business, regardless of the downturn,” Hollander said. “We are able to continue to be affordable because of our size.”
The facility has 6,700 fixed seats, but can accommodate up to 8,000, he said. The MassMutual Center renovation did not include the addition of luxury suites, but it did install wider, more comfortable seats and padded club seats.
The center’s only tenant is the Springfield Falcons, a minor league hockey team, which accounts for 40 events. It also hosts early rounds of the NCAA men’s national championship basketball tournament and expects to handle about seven concerts per year.