The Arena is a Diva and She’s Bringing Down the Show

March 25, 2010 at 11:30am By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

It occurred to me this morning that the pro-arena folks have made a substantial marketing mistake. Intentionally or not, they’re selling an arena project. And yet the scope of the project is really much bigger than that. It’s a full Haymarket renovation. A Haymarket Renaissance. A Haymarket Revolution. The third-of-a-million bucks won’t just build a giant basketball barn. We will actually get:

  • A 16,000 seat arena, featuring an all-star primary tenant in the Huskers;
  • Breslow Ice Center;
  • A hotel;
  • 100,000 square feet of new retail space;
  • 100,000 square feet of new office space;
  • 100 apartments and condos;
  • Public festival spaces; and
  • Substantial new parking and roads.

When promoted that way, $344 million almost sounds like a bargain! But no, the focus has been almost entirely on the arena. That allows the antis—the aree-nos if you will—to simplify their dissent into a tight, pleasant little package. “$344 million is an obscene price to pay for an arena!”, they shout. And they’re right! $344 million is too much to pay for an arena. Anybody who hears their message can see that fact plain as day. What a boondoggle! The antis’ job is done and they haven’t even broken a sweat. All the extra stuff—the environmental concerns, for example—is just icing on the cake.

The arena has become a diva. She hogs the spotlight. “Look at me!”, she exclaims. “See how I sparkle and shine!”. Meanwhile the rest of the cast lurks in the background, awaiting their day in the center of attention. Occasionally the focus does shift to the costars, but it doesn’t stay long. The arena is always there, drawing attention to herself, a veritable cocktail party photobomber.

I can’t help but think that if this were more of an ensemble project it would be easier to sell. As it is, one need only damage the star to bring down the entire project. But bring the entire cast to the table and a weakness or flaw in an individual is much less important in the context of the group as a whole. Yes, the arena is the natural focal point. But there are lots of other cool opportunities here. Doesn’t an ice center sound awesome to you? Think of the new ice skating and ice hockey opportunities for Lincoln’s youth! Wouldn’t it be great to expand and improve the Haymarket Farmers Market, with more vendors, more space, more Saturday morning entertainment, and more parking? Sign me up! And on and on. I don’t know about you, but to me it’s those sorts of mental images that really get me excited about this project. The arena opens a lot of doors to Lincoln, yes. But so do all of the other components of the project. They shouldn’t be neglected.

What’s your take? Have the pros missed opportunities and, if so, will that ultimately torpedo the project? How much more difficult might the antis’ job be if we were talking about the “Haymarket Revolution” instead of the “arena project”?

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The Comments

Fletch March 25, 2010 at 12:44pm

I think this is spot-on, and have wondered the same thing. This is what I would counter when the question is raised as to why we are voting on only $25 million and not the whole $300 plus.

JT March 25, 2010 at 1:53pm

I haven’t really thought about it like that. Good analysis.

Stacy March 25, 2010 at 2:44pm

Sorry, still doesn’t change my mind.  Have you seen how many “For Lease” signs are down in the Haymarket right now?  How many apartments are still for lease downtown?  Oh, and there is still the “Field of Dreams” complex the Diva has. 

Go take a look at Qwest Center’s events calendar.  In April they have 3 events.  THREE.  A religious one, a concert of a has been country singer and motocross.

I just thing that everyone is seriously out of touch in regards to the reality of arenas.

Do the Math March 25, 2010 at 3:19pm

Really? 

Run the math.  If each of those events sells 80% of the seats in Qwest (assume 12,000) at a net $25/seat (a fairly low avg), Qwest nets $300,000.  Add in an extra net $16/person for parking, concessions, souvenirs and the total event net is $500,000.  Multiply that by 36 events (3/month) and you have $18,000,000/year.  That is more than enough to pay for the Arena and perhaps buy you a little more optimism. 

And this does not count any Husker events, which we would have here.  I am not saying the Arena is going to be a gold mine, but Qwest’s arena (not convention center) has consistently made money.

Fletch March 25, 2010 at 3:23pm

Sorry, I have to call you out on this one. I went to the Qwest website. It’s over simple to look only at events in the arena. Convention business is huge - and can drive many more dollars into this city.

I think the pro-arena crowd is missing the boat again by only hyping big events. If there are one or two concerts and big events a month, that’s great.

But look again at the April calendar at Qwest - and look at the EVENTS calendar. 22 out of 30 days have something planned.

Bringing convention business is huge - many of those people will stay multiple hotel nights and spend more money here than people coming one night to see Miley Cyrus or (insert artist here). The combination of more convention space and more hotel rooms nearby are a must.

I’ve done convention planning, here in Lincoln, and it’s very hard to bring in a convention of more than about 300 people where you can a) have the space and b) have the rooms.

Gene March 25, 2010 at 3:43pm

I think we’re getting off track here. The important thing to remember is that the city is close to spending $500k on potholes, so we can’t possibly have enough events in the arena to cover those costs.

Fletch March 25, 2010 at 3:58pm

Gene, you crack me up sometimes.

Perhaps once the Diva is built, we could host a national/international convention of pothole vendors and fillers and we could become the epicenter of pothole prevention and improvements around the globe.

meatball March 25, 2010 at 4:11pm

Here’s the real reality, Stacy: Demand for downtown-living space currently outpaces supply. The Haymarket Redevelopment will only increase that demand. I work in the Haymarket every day. The “For Lease” signs are not nearly as prevalent as you seem to wish they are. In fact, if we were even nearing 100% occupancy, it would signal that we’re already way behind in developing new space.

And your has-been country singer’s concert at Qwest appears to be sold out.

Lucy March 25, 2010 at 5:20pm

Seems like a lot of money anyway you look at it.  Moving the State Fair was totally unacceptable to some people. You say that has nothing to do with your project you are touting.  It does because what UNL wants they get regardless of cost or tradition.  Yep, I am old but I can recognize right from wrong, more so in this economy.

Fletch March 25, 2010 at 5:24pm

UNL and the State Government are the engines that drive Lincoln’s economy. I just don’t get the hate.

Mr. T March 25, 2010 at 6:25pm

I agree with Fletch that UNL does indeed play a major role in driving this city’s economy. Lucy, I also agree with you that that doesn’t mean that UNL should automatically get everything it wants though, too. However, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization.

To use your state fair example: Moving the state fair out was a good idea because that property brings SO much more value as a research campus than it did serving as host for a second-rate state fair once a year. That was a no-brainer. The fact that UNL wanted it doesn’t mean UNL gets whatever it wants. In the state fair grounds case, it was just an instance of UNL’s interests aligning with what was clearly good for the city too. Its the same with the arena as well.

meatball March 25, 2010 at 6:36pm

If the State Fair truly was so important to Lincolnites, Lincolnites would have supported it at a level that would have made it impossible to move. Most are/were antipathetic to the fair and the fact it has left town.

Gene March 25, 2010 at 7:19pm

I like that two of the big arguments against the arena the last couple of days have been potholes and the State Fair moving to Grand Island.

beerorkid March 25, 2010 at 7:28pm

The area that was designated blighted for the arena is 1 block from my house.  Will building the arena help or hurt me?  I am sure Nugent fan urine might harm my grass, but I am willing to accept that with all the $ I will make off the beer cans thrown on said ruined lawn.

Mr. Wilson March 25, 2010 at 7:30pm

Free parking and tailgating at beerorkid’s place!

Fletch March 25, 2010 at 7:36pm

I think it’s a chance for you to make money selling some parking, plus, you’d never have to drink and drive (not implying you wold anyway, of course) - you could walk to and from an event.

Amanda March 25, 2010 at 11:09pm

I am on the fence about the arena and am trying to get more informed. I’d be interested to hear opinions on a couple questions. What’s the thinking about what this will do to the Haymarket?  That is, will it adversely impact the existing businesses or the farmers’ market? What businesses are expected to fill the retail space?

Neal March 25, 2010 at 11:19pm

It’s simple to only use the events at the Qwest arena for comparison because Lincoln is proposing building an arena, and so that’s the appropriate comparison.

It’s misleading to use the number of Qwest convention center events to argue for the Lincoln arena, as the Lincoln arena will not include a convention center. Furthermore, it’s not exactly a persuasive argument, given the fact that the Qwest’s convention center is the big money loser.

Neal March 25, 2010 at 11:24pm

Mr. Wilson,

I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind addressing how you square your previously stated libertarian political beliefs with such a large, publicly funded project (and as you argue above, even bigger than people realize).

I don’t intend this as any sort of “gotcha” question—I’m genuinely curious.

Mr. T March 26, 2010 at 2:12am

Neal, that’s like saying: “Hey Neal, how do you reconcile your criticizing a publicly funded project with your liberal beliefs?”

See what I mean?

Dave K March 26, 2010 at 3:05am

Finally, an admission that liberalism consists of publicly funded projects regardless of how stupid they are.

Dave K March 26, 2010 at 3:08am

Amanda, instead of asking us those questions, please ask yourself this one: Do I trust the leaders of this city to run a 350+ million dollar project?

beerorkid March 26, 2010 at 3:08am

How about that stupid military and stupid police.

Neal March 26, 2010 at 3:21am

No, I don’t see what you mean.

There’s nothing about liberalism that automatically assumes a dollar spent is wisely spent just because it’s spent.

Conversely, though, there is something inherent in a libertarian philosophy that would be opposed to government getting involved in something that private investors could do just as well.

Regardless, I think Mr. Wilson is a big boy, and I trust he can express his thoughts on his own. Thanks, though.

Mr. T March 26, 2010 at 4:36am

<i>There

Mr. Wilson March 26, 2010 at 12:42pm

Neal, that’s a perfectly valid question. I won’t answer at length because I simply don’t have time this morning. Here’s the short version.

I am libertarian, yes. More strongly in some areas than others. You aren’t incorrect to think I might be against this sort of project. In fact, although I’m leaning in favor of this project I’m only leaning. There are perfectly valid reasons to oppose the project (along with some very silly reasons).

I’m not a strict libertarian, though. In this country that would require living my life opposing darn near everything. That’s too depressing for me. So I try to be pragmatic. I tend to be more libertarian as the individual has less control over the decision imposed upon him. That is I tend to be most libertarian on national issues, more pragmatic—though still guided by my principles—at the local level.

When thinking about this project I’ve had to weigh all kinds of questions: Is the project good for Lincoln? Is an arena needed? What are the alternatives? Could somebody else do it? What would that look like? Who should pay? How much is too much? And so on. Again keeping this short and skipping the details, I weighed the data and it came out on the “pro” side.

One of the keys for me was a public vote. I think this is something Lincolnites should decide directly, not via representatives. I’m not particularly pleased that the vote doesn’t explicitly cover the entire project, but in reality a no vote kills the project. Fine. If there were no vote or if the vote were merely a charade, I’d be angry.

All in all I think this is a good—if imperfect—project for Lincoln to undertake. Lincolnites should vote yes. But I won’t lose sleep if they vote no. Lincoln will be fine. Maybe not as fine as we would be with the project, but fine nevertheless.

Neal March 26, 2010 at 10:13pm

Thanks, and I appreciate you addressing it as an honest question.

scottw March 28, 2010 at 3:45pm

The Breslow Ice Center will be built with or without this arena. When Mr. Breslow announced his generous donation in 2007 there was no mention of the arena. Since this center would be owned by UNL, I think is should be located in proximity to the “Ice Box”.

All of the private development you list is speculative (as the catalyst block project was). The city has no binding agreements that these will be built and no set time-line for their construction. It is very difficult to get financing for these types of developments, especially office and retail. Almost all of the projected job and economic gains come from this proposed development.

The “festival space” is an asphalt slab over the old city dump.

Our “all-star tenant” gets first choice of booking dates yet provides no money to build and will be using the arena at essentially no charge. How can this work financially.

The rough estimate of 18 mil yearly will not be enough. The cash flow plan shows annual payments of over 26 million by year ten. We are paying interest on this debt for 30 years. The projected cash flow will only cover the interest for the first ten years -a pre-recession financing scheme that hasn’t worked out well in practice.

scottw March 28, 2010 at 3:52pm

One more observation: The very expensive infrastructure would not be necessary if the arena was located on one of the original five downtown sites selected by our consultants. It is planned to serve the arena and would be a detriment, not a benefit, to the Haymarket.

I also don’t think that making the Farmer’s Market bigger would in any way make it better.

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