Arena in right place

Ben Allen ventured onto friendly turf a few Tuesdays ago to try to re-energize a campaign for a multi-use arena in downtown Jackson. Supporters made up most of the crowd of 200 or so people who turned out for the “Arena Extravaganza” sponsored by the organization Allen heads, Downtown Jackson Partners, and the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Allen will have to work lot tougher audiences once the arena campaign is launched in earnest. It’s hoped here that the skeptics he will encounter understand Mr. Allen is doing what a good downtown economic development promoter is suppose to do. Anything else and he would be falling short on the job.

It’s a darn tough sell — the idea of a $80-million-plus arena in a cash-strapped city with so many other needs. But those needs could be precisely why an arena should go forward, say Mr. Allen and the other proponents who see a downtown entertainment palace as a giver, not a taker.

They conceive the “giving” coming from the immense potential an arena would have as a key building block for creating a living and breathing downtown, one that generates wealth for a city in need of a big boost on the income side of the ledger.

It’s not as though we’re starting with a moonscape here. Evidence of investor bullishness is easy to find along downtown streets, where you’ll see newly renovated hotels and apartment buildings as well as steady openings of new storefront retail and eateries.

And Jackson’s signature project for the moment – the $200-million multi-use Capital City Center, has a nod for $90 million in city issued bonds that are to help fund a 19-story Crowne Plaza Hotel for convention visitors, a 175-room Staybridge Suites Hotel, a 1,500-car garage and skywalks that will link the hotels with the Convention Complex. A high-end apartment building of 200-units is also contemplated.

More of the downtown vision: an expanded Convention Complex and a new Jackson State University football stadium.

What’s missing from this?

An arena, Ben Allen says.

Expect a feasibility study to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the arena, unless somehow a trio of blind mice win the contract to conduct it.

The crucial examination will be the one that looks at where to put it. Make the right call and the arena could bring Jackson something like the estimated $2 billion in new development that’s occurred the last decade in the vicinity of North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

Make the wrong call and you end up like Miami, which in 1988 built a $52-million home for the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association and the Florida Panthers of the National Hockey League. Both tenants — deeming the arena’s location in a less-than-desirable part of Miami’s downtown to be bad for business — bugged out. Two years ago wrecking crews demolished the long-vacant Miami Arena, leaving the city with tens of millions of dollars still to pay on the structure’s debt and not a bit of new development that could be credited to the building of the arena.

Mr. Allen on one hand touts the tremendous potential of an arena in downtown Jackson. On the other he says he’s willing to give up his vision and let an arena go in “across the river” or “up the highway.”

Bluntly, he says, “There will be one, and I have friends in Rankin and Madison County trying to make just this happen if we ‘slip up.’”

We can hope he’s waving the “out-of-downtown” card for leverage purposes only. Doing so for any other reason would mean he’s not doing what a good downtown economic development promoter is suppose to do.

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