If you haven't heard yet, The University of Akron's board of trustees announced Wednesday that plans are in the works for a downtown arena. The plans are for a 9,000 seat arena located directly across from Canal Park, the home stadium for Akron's minor league baseball team. It'll cost a cool $76 million, mainly funded from a tax hike in Summit County.
It's not strictly a UA thing though. This is a joint effort between UA, Summit County and the city of Akron. However, the notes from the BoT meeting do say that the proposed arena "will be scheduled and operated in such a manner that the primary user will UA to host it's sporting and such other events ..." In fact, the land that the proposed arena will be built is co-owned by the University and the city of Akron.
First of all let's dig into why this is a great thing for the University and the city of Akron in general. From the University's point of view they get a brand new arena without having to spend a dime. The arena will be built strictly from monies generated by the tax hike, which is great news for a university that has accumulated loads of debt throughout the last few years. The arena would replace James A. Rhodes Arena (the JAR), a 31-year old structure with awful sight lines and the look of a brick box.
Not to pile on on the JAR, but it's time for the building to be replaced or massively upgraded. Zips fans have talked about how to improve the JAR for years; from moving the student section, knocking down walls, and replacing wooden bleachers among other ideas. It's one of the oldest buildings in the conference and can't help in the recruiting game. The JAR really sticks out when placed next to InfoCision Stadium and the new-ish student recreation center and student union.
For the city of Akron it's a win too. A downtown arena would do wonders for the city, bringing in events and more visitors into a place where tourism isn't exactly the biggest source of revenue. The arena would help restaurants and bars around where it would be located and would bring new life to a downtown area that needs some TLC.
The new arena could also bring another minor league team to the city. The Cleveland Cavaliers' D-League affiliate, the Canton Charge, play half an hour south of Akron, and Cleveland has the Gladiators of the Arena Football League. But, the new arena could host another smaller minor league football or basketball team and bring in even more revenue.
It's not all positive though. Detractors say that if Akron's basketball team can't even sell out the 5,500 seat JAR, how could they fill a 9,000 seat arena? Certainly it's a valid point, and it's really a wonder why Akron cannot routinely get 5,000 people per game when the team has been the class of the conference for the past seven years or so. Student support is also pretty poor (except the big games); would a new arena make students more willing to go to the games? Being downtown, it's not a five-minute walk from the residence halls either:
(screenshot via Google Maps)
The new site (outlined in red) is right on Main Street, close to campus but farther away from students. Are students willing to walk the extra quarter-mile or so to go to the game? Especially when basketball is played during the winter, and we all know how bad winters get in the Midwest.
Another potential problem comes about when thinking of other events the arena could have. There aren't many headliners coming to Akron these days, and I can't see them coming to a new arena when other options are much better. Cleveland is sixty miles away and has the ability to host huge concerts, plays and other events. Cleveland is a much bigger population center and is more attractive to promoters looking for places to host events. Big music acts also come to Blossom Music Center, an outdoor concert venue located just north of Akron. Will these performers/acts shift their shows to the new arena? I wouldn't think so.
Probably the most important issue is that this is going to be put up for vote in the November election. No one wants a tax increase, even if it's just a quarter of a percent in sales tax. Cleveland is split over the "sin tax" which helps fund repairs for the three stadiums downtown. That tax, which is on alcohol and cigarettes, is up for vote in a couple weeks and has caused a lot of debate. Will residents of Summit County (where Akron is located) be willing to pay more for a new downtown venue? Or would they say, "I'm not going to pay for that, I don't mind driving 10 miles away to watch a concert at Blossom."
That's the part that should be scary for the supporters of the new arena. Summit County isn't the wealthiest county in the state, and while this data is a few years old, the poverty rate for Akron in 2011 was nearly 30 percent. I'm not sure that a city on the downturn would willingly vote for a permanent increase in sales taxes.
The Akron Beacon-Journal has a poll on their website asking readers about whether they would vote for it, and it's currently at 47 percent for "Yes" and 53 percent "No" with 630 votes. Make of this what you will, but I'd expect the vote to likely lean towards the "No" side as more people vote.
I also keep coming back to the attendance issue. There are likely tens of thousands of Akron alumni living in Summit County, but why aren't they showing up for a successful basketball team? Ohio University has a much larger basketball arena and routinely brings in 8-9 thousand every game, drawing from a much smaller population. If Akron alumni won't come to support their former school, would they vote for a tax increase for a new arena for that same program?
To make it clear: I'm not trying to bash the city of Akron, UA, or alumni. I'm just trying to mention issues that I see as a recent alum, and continue the discussion. Being honest, I'd love to have a new arena for Zips basketball. The JAR is outdated and needs attention badly, and I think this proposal would greatly help the University and the city. But, I also have to be realistic.
The Zips will play (at most) twenty home games during a season, and when you throw in the women's team that makes thirty-five to forty days where the arena would definitely be in use. That leaves 325 days for other events, concerts, or conferences. Will a majority of those open dates be filled? There needs to be some return on investment, and I'm not sure if downtown Akron is a big enough draw.
Today has been a day that many Zips' basketball fans have been long waiting for: an actual proposal for a new basketball arena in downtown Akron. People have been clamoring for this for years and now it's finally going to be put on a ballot. Honestly, that's the easy part.
The hard part now is convincing a majority of Summit County voters that the new arena is worth a tax increase. No matter how small the increase is, voters see an increase in tax as a negative thing and won't even look at what the increase will benefit. I'm not sure if this will pass or not, but it'll certainly be interesting to see how the whole situation plays out.