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Jackson looks to Little Rock for downtown arena

The Downtown Jackson Partners CEO was a veritable master of ceremonies last week at the TelCom Center where a gathering of business people, government officials and media listened to Allen outline the positive economic impact an arena would have on downtown Jackson.

He even made a bold prediction.

“Write it down: In 10 years, there will be a major arena in Jackson.”

The next step is for Allen and DJP to gauge interest around the city, to see if other stakeholders are as excited about the possibility as he is.

“We’re looking for a ‘yes,’” Allen said.

If enough affirmatives are gathered, DJP will contract out a feasibility study. “If we think this is a go, we’re going to rustle up the money,” Allen said.

In Allen’s mind, the feasibility threshold has already been reached. He pointed to Tupelo’s success with BancorpSouth Arena, a 10,000-seat venue that has hosted everything from monster truck rallies to a Rod Stewart concert.

“They can have that in Tupelo, but we can’t have that here,” Allen said sarcastically.

For Jackson to have that, officials would do well to follow the model Little Rock, Ark., used in building its 18,000-seat Alltel Arena in North Little Rock.

Alltel Arena has been the site of a number of major athletic events – the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament twice, a regional host for the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament – and sold-out concerts with artists such as George Strait and the Rolling Stones.

After two votes to enact measures to raise funds failed, arena proponents huddled with city and county officials, got everybody moving in the same direction, and eventually passed a one-time, 1¢ sales tax increase that paid for the arena and expanded Little Rock’s convention center.

“When we held the grand opening, we held up a voucher that said the arena was paid for already,” said Alltel Arena manager Michael Marion. “The total cost of the arena was $84 million, and the total coast to taxpayers was $56 million.”

The arena has revived a once-sagging downtown economy in Little Rock. Hotels have been built. Restaurants have opened and the general perception of the area has improved.

“It has literally changed the face of that whole area,” Marion said.

One of the biggest events at the arena was the NCAA basketball regional this past spring. The University of Memphis eventually advanced out of North Little Rock, beating Mississippi State in the process. But it was one years before the regional tipped off that got arena organizers excited.

“We sold out the entire regional in 48 hours, one year before,” Marion said. Sales tax from the nine-year-old arena back to state averages $1 million a year. “And we haven’t once gone to any governing body and asked for money,” said Marion.

Marion said the arena has thrived without a long-term tenant. A minor league hockey team came and went, as did the University of Arkansas-Little Rock basketball program.

“We actually asked the hockey team to leave, and they were happy to, so now our luxury box tenants can renew their leases without having to buy those tickets,” Marion said, adding that 90% of the luxury suite tenants renewed their leases.

Allen does not want this project to end up like Trustmark Park, outside Jackson because various organizational entities could not come together on a united front during the sales pitch.
“I know for a fact that Ridgeland and Pearl are (discussing the possibility of building an arena), but we’ve got something they don’t have — money,” Allen said. “Let’s just go ahead and get that out there.

“If they did it in Little Rock, I know we can do it here.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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