Editor's notebook: 3 concerns I have about building a new arena
I have been skeptical ever since rumors first started circulating in August about the possibility of building a new arena in Rochester. There is already ample research suggesting public subsidies for sports arenas and stadiums are not the economic-driving machines they've been advertised to be in cities across the U.S.
That said, I'm a sports fan and back when I lived in Green Bay, some of the best memories I have are going to watch the local United States Hockey League team, the Gamblers, on Friday and Saturday nights. The team was always good so every night you could count on at least 3,000 fans to show up.
But that's Green Bay, the same city where people voluntarily pay $200 to sit on frozen bleachers for three hours. I would know; I am one of them.
Rochester is not Green Bay. It's not Madison. It's not Minneapolis. There is no professional or amateur team here that generates the interest of the Packers, Badgers or Gophers. That is partly why other expansion teams have failed here — it's just not a sports town.
The consultants will argue, as they did on Monday, that because of Rochester's growing population and high median income, a USHL team has the potential to average 3,361 spectators per night. They will also say the league is managed differently and more popular than when the Mustangs left town in 2002.
We need to remember, though, that it's their job to sell us on a new arena; it's our job to ask the tough questions. There is no doubt a state-of-the-art arena would make our downtown more exciting. But at what cost?
If there is a substantial amount of public investment — let's say in the tens of millions — required to build this thing, I think we will need to re-evaluate our priorities as a community. This city already has a sizable amount of unmet needs, from infrastructure to public safety, making the idea of spending that kind of money on an arena seem ludicrous.
How will it be funded?
I found it odd that the representative from Hammes Sports Development Group, the company that conducted the feasibility study, presented the council with a detailed timeline that began in November and wrapped up in fall 2017. "There's not a lot of slack time anymore," he said.
But when the questions turned to funding sources, the room went silent. Now, it's hard to believe that Hammes or the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, which commissioned the study, don't have any idea of how much private investment is on the table.
Brad Jones, RCVB's executive director, said himself that the idea of building a new arena has been in the works for seven months. But when pressed by council members on how much public funding would be needed, Jones said he would have to come back to the council with exact numbers.
We can only speculate at this point of how much public investment it would take to build an arena. The three sizes recommended by the consultants would cost between $55-$75 million total. That doesn't include regular maintenance or upgrades needed to keep the facility up and running.
Do we actually want it?
Yes, there's the occasional grumble of "Rochester's boring." But beyond that, is there really any appetite in the city to use public funding for a new arena?
The comments on social media have been mixed. As evidence, just look at some of the most popular comments on our Facebook page:
Venues need to stay up to date for many reasons, including the ability to draw talent and acts, draw crowds as an attractive place to go to.
"If you build it, they will come," does not apply to Rochester. Please use our tax & state funding more appropriately.
The venue looks great and all but we have a hard time filling Taylor arena with anything right now. We need some people to bring in REAL entertainment first. Don't buy a boat with no access to water!
But venting on social media can only get us so far. We'll need more feedback from the community. So whether you are for or against the arena, I encourage you to contact your elected officials, show up to the meetings and, for starters, vote in this online poll below.
It's a question I keep hearing over and over again: if building a new arena is so important to Rochester's future, why wasn't it thought of earlier?
The Mayo Civic Center is currently undergoing a $85 million upgrade, mostly to increase the amount of expo and meeting space. Why wasn't Taylor Arena included in the plan? The Recreation Center is undergoing a renovation project that includes the addition of a new senior center. Why couldn't we have upgraded the ice rink there to fit a USHL team?
My concern is that the only reason we're even talking about spending public money on a new arena is because a group of companies (that have a lot to gain by building a new arena here) think it's a good idea. Of course they do.
Hammes, the company taking the lead on the project, has an impressive resume when it comes large-scale sports projects: it includes Ford Field in Detroit, the Kohl Center in Madison and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It's now working on the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in Minneapolis.
But while those facilities may (or may not) fit into their respective communities' long-term plans, it's hard to imagine how a new arena would fit into ours. After all, where in the DMC plan does it mention the need for WWE shows and Miranda Lambert concerts?
It's time for us to get back to the issues that matter, like housing, transportation and education. It's time for us to stop obsessing over the shiny object we most likely can't afford. It's time for us to end this daydream — for now anyways.
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover graphic: Rendering / RCVB)