Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Arenas and Stadiums Don't Meet Expectations

I've been one of "those guys" who is typically skeptical about the need for building new arenas and stadiums in this area.  The CenturyLink Center?  Great decision, at least with the arena, which has hosted events that Omaha would never otherwise be able to host:  NCAA tournaments, Olympic swimming trials and big-name concerts.  (The convention center is another matter entirely, and the part that drags down the profitability.)  TD Ameritrade Park? Good decision, when you combine the NCAA's willingness to sign on for an unprecedented 25 year contract for the College World Series with what the Henry Doorly Zoo is able to do with the additional space.

Bad decisions? Look no further than the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, which has been reduced to a role as a staging site for concert tours looking for empty arenas that they can use for a few weeks to practice in.  Werner Park, affectionately known as the "Trailer Park" on the outskirts of the metro area, which still has failed to produce any of the commercial development that county officials were promised - yet still racks up ever increasing bills for mistakes made during the planning stage, such as lack of parking and a lemon of a scoreboard.  Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the city is trying to strong-arm the NU athletic department into allowing beer sales during Nebraska basketball games to balance the books.

And now add Ralston Arena to the "bad decision" column.  Hemorrhaging cash ever since it opened, the city is now facing the need to hike property taxes 34% to balance the city's budget, in order to cover the revenue shortfall from the arena.  Mistake?  Hard to argue that it's not.

Of course, all of these venues were built with glowing positive expectations...but now reality has set in for Council Bluffs, Sarpy County and now Ralston.  Next up:  UNO with their new Baxter Arena.  One of the driving factors behind the decision was that it costs "too much" for UNO to play hockey games at the CenturyLink Center.  I submit that it's cheaper to rent an arena for 21 nights a year than to own and maintain an arena 365 days a year.

Who's right?  We'll see.  UNO certainly employed many experts who analyzed the proposal and justified it economically.  But here's the kicker: so did Council Bluffs, Sarpy County and Ralston.

Bottom line to me is that you don't build stadiums and arenas to make money, you build them because it makes your community better.  That happened with the CenturyLink Center.  When you consider the NCAA's commitment to the city and zoo expansion, that happened with TD Ameritrade Park.  The rest?  Not so much.  (No, I don't buy the argument that the Omaha Royals would have left the area entirely - not when Walter Scott and Warren Buffett still owned 50% of the team.)

Are there some good reasons for UNO to build an arena? Yes.  Getting games closer to campus is a good thing.  Having practice ice adjacent to the arena is hugely important.  Not having to schedule UNO hockey games around other events is a good thing as well.  All are good.  But will UNO be financially better off with this arena?  They say absolutely, but past history suggests that "they" are dead wrong.

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