Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Arena Origin Story (Part 4): If You Build It...

By Jon Brooks

Everything seemed perfect. Idyllic, really.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha Hockey program looked like it had been born to play hockey at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. An outside observer in the late 1990s would have been hard-pressed to tell the team hadn't been playing there for decades.

The arena fit UNO Hockey like a glove.

But the winds of change were howling like a banshee. Local leaders were talking about a new arena/convention center as the millennium neared. Such was the case about many things in those heady economic days.

"If You Build It..."
A commission was formed in the late '90s to look at the viability of the city building a new arena/convention center downtown.

The commission studied many factors and made financial projections. The commission favored a location southwest of downtown's Old Market district. Mayor Daub favored the Union Pacific railyard on the northeast edge of downtown.

In addition, some in Omaha (like the Baer family, who owned the Omaha Lancers) were still pushing for the Aksarben property to become the focus of the city's arena plans.

The discussion of such a facility permeated Daub's tenure in office, and likely defined his legacy in politics. He tended to have a bullish outlook on urban renewal efforts in Omaha, and his frenetic persistence on the matter eventually saw the arena come to fruition.

(There was even one report in April 1998 suggesting the Daub administration was considering building a NASCAR track near the UP railyard site).

In many respects, the issue turned into a race of sorts as the city kept a wary eye across the river at Council Bluffs, and whether the considerable casino revenue there would result in their city building an arena/convention center first.

(Council Bluffs did beat Omaha to the punch, but their arena would be built at less than half the capacity of Omaha's facility, and didn't have near the convention space or amenities).

After lengthy debate on a site for Omaha's proposed arena/convention center, the venue would end up in the northeastern part of downtown on the U.P. site where Daub had envisioned, adjacent to a park on the "cleaned up" Asarco lead refinery property (despite concerns from certain groups about contamination to the site's groundwater).

There was considerable debate on funding an entertainment/convention venue for Omaha. Perusing the reams of articles on the matter, it is readily apparent that a book could be written on the political machinations behind the downtown arena/convention center.

The measure was eventually put to a vote on May 9, 2000 (along with a measure to approve a governing authority -- MECA -- to run it).

A group called "Build It Omaha" set forth to promote the ballot bond issue. I remember their TV commercials (saying, "It's about Omaha's future"), red-white-and-blue yard signs, and website.

I also remember being handed a "Build It Omaha" sticker at the 2000 Maverick Council Dinner (one of our clients had a table at the event).

Voters approved both ballot measures, and work began in earnest on the arena/convention center project.

On the topic of minor league hockey at the venue...

There had been rumblings about such a thing at a new arena, but the financial projections reported limited the numbers to UNO Hockey and Creighton Basketball.

David Sokol (the first chairman of the MECA board) told the Omaha World-Herald on May 18, 2001:
"At this point, minor league hockey, in my personal view, has not demonstrated it would be the best and highest use for the amount of nights it would take."

Should I Stay or Should I Go
The Omaha World-Herald published an article on May 25, 2002 telling readers that UNO Hockey was set to become the first major tenant at the yet-to-be-named arena.

UNO Athletic Director Bob Danenhauer said of the move: "For the viability of our athletic program and hockey, this is the right move for us. You're going to have a facility that is brand new and one of the best in the country."

The financials of the deal were outlined in the article:

-- UNO would pay an estimated $600,000 annually — $6 million, plus inflation, over 10 years. The lease would start Sept. 1, 2003, and UNO would begin playing hockey at the arena in the 2003-04 season.

-- The main advantage is that UNO would be able to sell more tickets, [Danenhauer] said. The Civic's hockey capacity is 8,314. The new arena's will be about 14,500.

-- UNO's estimated $600,000 lease payment for the first year of the new arena is $200,000 more than the $400,000 the university will pay [for the 2002-03 season] for the Civic.

-- The higher cost of leasing the new arena would be more than offset by an estimated $650,000 increase in hockey revenue that first year, primarily from additional ticket sales and advertising income.

-- UNO would pay a base rent of $4,500 a game. The university also would pay MECA 10 percent of all per-game ticket proceeds in excess of $82,000.

-- The lease also requires a utility fee of $1,000 a game, which also would be increased annually by a percentage that matches the increase in the base rent. UNO also must pay a facility fee of $1.50 a ticket, the same amount it pays at the Civic.

UNO had expressed hopes of selling more seats as a result of the move. He suggested that season ticket holders at the time expressed interest in adding seats, and that the athletic department had a marketing and promotional program they were planning to unveil.

(UNO did, in fact, announce a marketing deal with "Omaha Sports Marketing" on March 5, 2003. OSM was a marketing division of the Omaha Royals Baseball organization).

Danenhauer also told the Omaha World-Herald that he didn't want to "cap [UNO's] potential fan base" by staying at the Civic Auditorium:

Danenhauer said UNO came to the conclusion that if it stays at the auditorium, it would cap its potential fan base. UNO has sold out all 87 of its home games since the program started in 1997. Its average paid attendance of 8,314 has ranked in the top five nationally in Division I hockey each of the past four years.

By moving to the new building, Danenhauer said, there would be an opportunity to increase the fan base beyond the current waiting list for 900 seats.

Goaltender Dan Ellis said of the Civic:
"This is my favorite rink to ever play in — by far. It's the perfect sized rink for college hockey. It's got an unbelievable atmosphere because it's a nice tight bowl. Our fans can fill the place, but even when it's maybe a little empty it's still loud."

Legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks had this to say:
"I love the Civic, and it would be crazy if they ever took the college game out of there. You keep putting 8,000 people in the Civic and keep the tickets a premium, and you've got something going. With the sight lines, it's one of the great college hockey rinks in America. The fans are as boisterous and as enthusiastic as any I've seen."

Others shared fondness for the old barn, but the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that it was time for the program to move forward.

Coach Mike Kemp's comment to the Omaha World-Herald sums up the mindset during those years: "How do you drive a recruit from the airport down Abbott Drive and go past the new arena and tell him that you don't play there but that you play in the 50-year-old building up the street?"

With season ticket renewals at 98 percent for the 2003-04 season, things looked to be in good shape to build on a solid base of support.

Lest people think hockey fans and supporters didn't give the $290 million arena/convention center (soon to be known as the "Qwest Center Omaha") a fair shake, my wife Bridget had the following to say in the Dec. 10, 2003 issue of the Omaha World-Herald:

"I was skeptical at first because of my attachment to the Civic," she said. "But after coming here, I've come around."

What no one realized at that moment was that sentiments would change, and within three years of the move, local "influencers" (along with fans on forums like would start to bang the drum for UNO to have its own on-campus arena.

Next time: Part 5

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