By Dave Hackenberg
The Toledo Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio – Where several months ago there was rubble from demolished buildings, then a gaping hole for foundation and prep work, there is now the unmistakable, oval shape of an arena rising in the heart of downtown Toledo.
Many of the same companies and people who were involved in the construction of Fifth Third Field prior to its opening in 2002 are hard at work in making the Lucas County Arena a reality, but the comparison goes beyond that.
When our marvelous baseball stadium was just a hole in the ground with concrete pillars poking out of the dirt and steel beams dangling from cranes, I walked around the construction site and didn’t envision any way in the world a first-class ballpark could be squeezed into such tight confines. Some 3.4 million visitors in the six-plus years since would tell me I was wrong.
So I expect to be wrong this time, too. But that’s the first thing you notice in watching the arena’s main concourse take shape with its back to Madison Avenue – it seems so compact.
Tim Meyer, the project manager for the Lathrop Company, said the entire site is about five acres, tops. The building footprint, as he called the area upon which the arena will sit, is about three acres.
How big is that? Well, if you built a tee box at the corner of Jefferson and Huron, where the main entrance will be positioned in the southwest corner of the arena, and plant some grass for a green where the loading dock will be in the northeast corner, you’d need about an 8-iron to play the par-3 hole. That’s it.
In the construction game, they call it a tight site.
Yet, 17 months from now, in October of 2009, upwards of 7,500 fans will be in the arena to watch the Toledo Walleye hockey team play its home opener. The venue will seat roughly 1,000 more for concerts and somewhere in between for the Ringling Brothers circus or Disney on Ice or Sesame Street Live.
The key to a tight site, where you can’t build too far out, is to build up. The roof of our arena will peak about 80 feet above ground level. That’s where fans will enter – the same level where the team merchandise shop and banquet facilities will be located – before climbing or riding escalators up to the second level and entry to the lower bowl seating areas. The third floor will feature 20 private suites, party decks, and club-level seats that will overhang the lower bowl, much like at Fifth Third Field.
“It will be a very intimate building,” said Joe Napoli, the vice president-general manager of the Mud Hens who will serve in a similar role with the Walleye and, possibly, an arena football team. “Fans will love the feel, especially for hockey. In a lot of bigger arenas, the second deck is so far removed from the action. Not here.
“We visited a lot of arenas and we learned that a lot of them in mid-sized communities like Toledo are over-built. We saw 12,000 to 15,000-seat arenas where maybe 9,000 seats are being used on a regular basis. They spent millions for those extra 3,000 or 5,000 seats and they see no return on that investment. We saw a lot of unused space or space not being used wisely. And you still have to heat, cool, and maintain it.
“This facility is being done differently. It’s compact, intimate. Our responsibility has been to focus on every square foot of the building and make sure each one contributes to the operation and to the fan experience.”
Steve Miller of SMG, a management firm for public assembly facilities, will be general manager of the arena and has four months under his belt as GM of the SeaGate Convention Centre. While the Walleye will be the arena’s main tenant with about 40 home playing dates per season, Miller will be responsible for bringing in the circus and monster trucks, MMA and pro wrestling, ice shows and dog shows, concerts and outside sporting events, like prep basketball and hockey tournaments.
“Part of the plan is to take arena events out of the convention center,” said Miller, who came to Toledo after a lengthy SMG stint at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We’re aiming for between 100 and 115 events a year, including the Walleye games. There has been very, very keen interest in this market by some of the [touring companies] that would come in for multiple shows. I think the arena is a perfect size. It’s going to be a great complex.”
And complex is the key word. Toledo will soon become one of the few cities of its size – or, for that matter, of any size – in America to have its outdoor stadium, indoor arena and convention center lined up from one city block to the next.
“And that’s just part of it,” Napoli added. “The riverfront is a block or two to the east, the Valentine Theater is a block to the north, the art museum is exactly one mile from the front door of the arena, Promenade Park is a short walk, and the zoo is within a few miles. All of a sudden, you’re looking at an impressive entertainment center with so many attractions so close together.”
Napoli estimates more than one million people will visit the two major sports venues per year. He said all the downtown attractions will draw upwards of 2.5 million visitors annually.
And he expects the new arena to spur even more of a social renaissance in the city’s center.
As part of the “tight site” format, neither Fifth Third Field nor the arena includes franchised restaurants, taverns or retail shops, other than team merchandise outlets. And, because our teams are steered by nonprofit boards that can afford to see the revenue go elsewhere, all parking is off site.
It’s all part of the master plan that funnels fans over several blocks past eateries, watering holes, and specialty shops on their way to and from the ballpark. It will be no different with the new arena and, said Napoli, “We anticipate entrepreneurs will look at downtown in a new light because there will now be 12 months of constant activity in this area.”
Yes, this could truly be huge for downtown Toledo.
Remember, big things often come in small packages.