The long awaited study on the future of Omaha's Civic Auditorium has finally finished the initial phase with a mixed message. On one hand, the physical plant apparantly is still in good shape for another 25 or 30 years, leading Mayor Mike Fahey to tell the Omaha World-Herald that it's going to be spared the wrecking ball for now.
However, on the other hand, the future business prospects for the Civic have never looked so bleak. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights have already fled town, and the Omaha Beef indoor football team have apparantly alienated their fan base, with attendance dropping 75% in recent weeks. Creighton is looking to bring women's basketball and volleyball back on campus. And the Civic needs about $15 million to retrofit the modern amenities into the arena.
So here comes the inevitable proposal to move UNO hockey back from the Qwest Center to the Civic.
It will take a lot to make the idea of returning Maverick Hockey back inside the snot-covered walls of the Civic palatable. Suites help. Club seating might be nice. Video replay boards would definitely help. And expanding the restrooms, concourses, and concession stands would be nice as well.
But it's still a 53 year old building that I still think Nebraska-Omaha's hockey program has outgrown. Many will disagree with that opinion. They remember the sightlines of the old barn. They remember the noise level of Tuesday night. They point out the sellouts in 2006 when UNO was forced to play the Weasels of Michigoon at the Civic to accomodate the State Wrestling Tournament.
Problem with that analogy is that 12 months earlier, the UNO-Michigan series drew nearly 20,000 fans to the Qwest Center. When UNO played Wayne State at the Civic to allow Creighton to play in the BracketBuster in 2005, those two games were the worst attended games in the second half of the season. They also don't remember how UNO's attendance INCREASED the first year at the Qwest Center, and in terms of butts in the seats, attendance at the Qwest Center is still better than attendance at the Civic in that last full season.
Suites, video boards, and a press box can certainly make the Civic more palatable, but where is there room to add these amenities? Simple...remove seating. Which presents the classic catch-22. Making the Civic smaller isn't a solution, as the Civic's seating today barely meets the requirements of the Big XII for women's basketball. And moving back to an even smaller Civic smacks of moving back in with your parents after you've grown and they've turned your room into a den. UNO's budget problems during the Nancy Belck fiasco are well known...but returning to the Civic because of the mismanagement of the previous administration is making a long-term business decision based on short-term issues.
Frankly, I'm not sure where the $15 million in funding for suites and other amenities is going to come from. If UNO were to return to the Civic, it would have to be at a significant discount to what they were paying before. (The Knights got a heck of a discount from the city and they still hemorraged cash worse than Jim Buck's University credit card...) No way is UNO paying $15 million to move back to the Civic.
If anything, this announcement is merely a stay-of-execution for the Civic. Some folks will call for the Mavs to move back, and there will be some discussions regarding it. But I just don't see it happening unless it's a short-term budget issue on the way towards building a new arena at Chili Greens. If anything, I see a bigger benefit to the city in allocating that $15 million plus the $3-$5 million in heating/air-conditioning repairs the Civic requires in the short term towards UNO's arena project. The Civic Auditorium arena is probably good for 25 years, but who is going to use the Exhibition Hall now? How about the Mancuso Convention Center? The expenses of maintaining those areas tip the equation against keeping the Civic. And at some point, the land at 18th & Capitol is going to be a target for redevelopment as Omaha's downtown continues to grow.