Published: Sunday, October 23, 2005
Youngstown city officials never asked for or even envisioned a downtown arena
They were surprised when then-U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. announced in June 2000 that he had got $26.8 million into a U.S. Housing and Urban Development spending bill for a downtown arena. A month later, the bill was signed into law.
"My original reaction was 'It's great the congressman did that, but is there any possibility we could use the money for business and economic development?'" said city Finance Director David Bozanich. "If you had to choose between job creation and an entertainment facility, you'd choose job creation because the city needs that more."
Struggle for survival
Despite the delays, arguments, obstacles and construction cost increases, the arena will hold its first paid event on Saturday, a concert by the group 3 Doors Down.
"This project probably died a half-dozen times and was on life support another half-dozen times before we got to the construction phase," said Mayor George M. McKelvey. "There were a number of times I thought it wouldn't be built."
At Traficant's insistence, the city agreed in September 2000 to establish a board to oversee the arena. But the board and city officials rarely cooperated and couldn't agree on which entity would be responsible for numerous aspects of the facility, where it would be built and the scope of the project.
The disagreements finally came to an end in February 2002 when the board disbanded just as city council planned to eliminate it.
As of January 2003, about 21/2 years after Traficant obtained the money, the only noteworthy use of the grant was the $1.5 million purchase of 25.6 acres of property between the South Avenue and Market Street bridges and even that wasn't without controversy.
The city received criticism because it didn't conduct an appraisal of the property before the purchase.
After a few more false starts, including a failed deal with a Texas company to build the facility, the city signed a construction and management contract with the Arizona-based Global Entertainment Group and its subsidiaries for the arena.
Realizing the vision
The city and company signed that deal in March 2004, nearly four years after Traficant first obtained the $26.8 million federal grant.
Contractors built the facility in about 11/2 years.
"Once we overcame the initial hurdles, the vision we had was realized quickly," McKelvey said. "People felt it could never be built. It's a pleasure to see it here."
The final cost of building the arena will not be known until about December, but it is considerably more the $26.8 million the city received from the federal government.
In a span of one week in July, city officials revised the cost estimate and the amount of money needed to borrow to make up the funding gap three times.
The projected cost went from $41.25 million to $45.38 million. Also, the funding gap, the amount above the grant that the city will have to come up with, went from $8.15 million to as much as $12.1 million.
The city plans to convert the debt next year into a 20-year bond. The city would pay $852,353 toward its debt in the first year.
The city plans to use profits from the arena to pay off the debt. The projected profit for 2006 is $1.15 million.
McKelvey and Bozanich point out that projects of this size typically require public entities to pay about 75 percent of the construction costs. Youngstown is paying about 25 percent of that cost.
The arena's maximum crowd capacity is 7,345 for certain general admission shows. A concert will typically have seating for 6,000, and hockey games will seat up to 5,500 people.
McKelvey visits the arena often and is amazed at the finished product.
"It's one thing to conceptually have a vision of what a facility will look like and another to go down there, sit in one of the seats and see the hockey team practice," he said. "It's a facility that exceeds any expectations I originally had."
Jeff Kossow, the arena's executive director, said the facility will act as a key cog in the downtown revitalization effort.
"At an open house, I had a woman tell me she hadn't been in downtown Youngstown in 25 years, and she was impressed with what she saw," he said.
"People have a poor impression of downtown Youngstown, but there is life in downtown."
McKelvey said he sees the facility as a catalyst for downtown development.
"That's not to say there won't be challenges ahead as to the operation of the facility," he said. "But we're off to a great start. We worked hard to get it built, and we'll work hard to keep it going."
XCOMING MONDAY: A day in the frantic life of Jeff Kossow, executive director of the Youngstown Convocation Center.