Does Knoxville Really Need a New $150 Million Arena?

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

recent consultant’s study does a good job of identifying problems with the antiquated Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, but is flawed in its assessment of solutions.

The study, conducted for the city by Conventions, Sports & Leisure, concludes that the 6,500-seat coliseum is deficient beyond reclamation and needs to be replaced.

After canvassing numerous more modern arenas in comparably sized cities, the study recommends that Knoxville ought to have a new 10,000-seat arena with state-of-the-amenities. Building such a facility, it projects, would draw many more events to the city and double the coliseum’s attendance of 180,000, which is the lowest of any of the comparable cities surveyed. “Failure to do so will result in continued erosion of market share and diminishing event and attendance levels at the KCAC,” it says.

The study goes on to state that, “Should the KCAC be decommissioned and no other facilities are developed, remaining event venues that presently exist in Knoxville would not be able to sufficiently accommodate KCAC’s displaced activity.”

This is where the flaws in CSL’s analysis start coming to the fore. The first is its assumption that no other venue in Knoxville could meet the need, while giving a superficial dust-off to the one that might: namely, Thompson-Boling Arena. The second is its failure to include in its analysis of comparables the one city that could come closest to serving as a model for Knoxville in this very regard: Columbia, S.C.

The 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena in Columbia was built by the University of South Carolina in 2002 and is home to the university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. But it takes pains to bill itself as a “multi-purpose arena” and its bookings even during basketball season are a testament to that.

Between now and early March the arena will host four performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, three Monster Jam events, concerts by R. Kelly and Janet Jackson, a Winter Jam event, and a Disney Live family show.

These bookings put the lie to one of the reasons CSL doesn’t consider Thompson-Boling fit to meet Knoxville’s needs—because it “is limited in terms of availability due to basketball season, which usually conflicts with large tour kick-off dates.” No doubt, adept scheduling is involved on the part of Comcast Spector, which operates Colonial Life, whereas Thompson-Boling is managed by a 30–year university employee, Tim Reese, who is nearing retirement age. A look at UT’s basketball schedule shows that there are two weekends in each of January and February when there are no men’s or women’s home games. Yet Thompson-Boling only has bookings on three of these 12 evenings.

Colonial Life has also gotten rid of what CSL considers “perhaps the biggest issue for concert and live entertainment promoters at Thompson-Boling—that alcohol sales and consumption is prohibited.” (Except in the suites leased to big donors who can stock and consume as much booze as they like.) Colonial Life offers beer and wine at non-university events while adhering to a Southeastern Conference ban on their sale at games.

It seems clear that the city’s consultants didn’t even look into the possibility that Thompson-Boling might do the same. Had they done so, they surely would have noted that State Rep. Martin Daniel is pushing hard for just such a change in UT policy. Daniel estimates that the university is missing about $500,000 in revenues on just the events held at TB in 2014 without taking into account how many other events it may have missed out on because of the policy.

As parochial and hypocritical as the policy may be, UT Vice Chancellor for Communications Margie Nichols says there is “nothing in the works” to change it while adding that, “I’m not saying it couldn’t be discussed.” If Mayor Madeline Rogero were to initiate the discussion in the name of strengthening Knoxville’s attractions in an area of weakness, I’ll bet the university would listen.

To be sure, a state-of-the-art new arena would have even more pulling power, but I can’t imagine the city justifying CSL’s price tag of close to $150 million. That’s more than the now not-so-new convention center cost and would more than double the city’s debt. Finance Director Jim York offers, as a rule of thumb, that each $1 million in new debt takes $70,000 in annual debt service at present interest rates. So that equates to $10.5 million a year for which city taxpayers would have to foot the bill, most probably in the form of a 24-cent property tax increase (though CSL lists some other less probable financing options).

One thing Colonial Life offers that Thompson-Boling can’t match is ice. So even if the old coliseum were shuttered for the rest of the year, it would still need to stay open during hockey season as a home for our beloved Ice Bears. As the CSL report brings out, its rink size is below standard and its 4,700 seating capacity for hockey is the smallest in the league. But then again, average attendance during last year’s championship season was only 3,400 and there were only three sell-outs. Making a virtue of necessity, a retro or vintage hockey arena might have some cachet. After all, Fenway Park in Boston is more than 100 years old and has an undersized playing field. But does anyone think that Red Sox fans would trade it in for anything?

As ugly as Thompson-Boling Arena is to look at from the outside, it’s become quite handsome on the inside since a $20 million renovation in 2007 that upgraded seating and concourses. The renovation also added to the load-bearing capacity of its roof to support events, such as the circus, for which the Civic Coliseum’s riggings are inadequate.

In sum, Knoxville should look no further than Columbia for a model that could result in a win-win for both UT and the city.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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