When the University of Akron basketball team travels to a campus with a newer and bigger arena, player Jake Kretzer imagines what it would be like if this were home.
He changes the seats to navy blue, and he hears the roar of a swelling crowd of Zips fans.
But then, reality returns him to the aging and cramped James A. Rhodes Arena.
“I love to play here,” Kretzer, a junior and sports management major, said after a recent practice, but he fantasizes for a moment. “If we got a new arena, it would be amazing, even if I’m not here.”
Kretzer is among those who think Akron needs a new arena, an idea that goes back at least 15 years.
But it is an idea that involves a city-university debate over location and could cost tens of millions of dollars.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic launched the discussion in his State of the City speech in February 1998, calling the 5,300-seat Rhodes Arena a “glorified high school gymnasium.” Luis Proenza, UA’s then-new and now soon-to-retire president, shot down the idea, saying the university’s development plate was full.
Since that time, UA has built a $62 million football stadium on the end of campus farthest from downtown and completed numerous other construction projects.
The idea, though, for a new or renovated arena hasn’t gone away. A UA-commissioned study released early last year looked at the costs of renovating the 29-year-old Rhodes Arena or building a new arena. The study pegged the price to renovate at about $38 million and to build a new 5,000-seat arena at $62 million.
Earlier this month, the university released IMPACT 2020, a seven-year plan for the athletics department that has among its goals ensuring that “our physical campus serves as a source of pride for the university, our student athletes, coaches and fans.” The plan suggests creating a master facilities road map that “includes a new or renovated basketball arena.” The study doesn’t address where a new arena would be built.
Other cities have had mixed results with a downtown arena.
Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center, which has been hurt by competition from the nearby and newer Quicken Loans Arena, is losing $1 million a year, prompting one board member recently to suggest it should be torn down. Youngstown’s Covelli Centre, on the other hand, turned a $320,787 operational profit.
National and local experts aren’t enthusiastic about downtown arenas as tools to drive economic development. Ned Hill, dean of Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, told the Beacon Journal in 1998, after Plusquellic launched the idea of a downtown arena that it was a “high risk endeavor.” He hasn’t changed his mind.
“Downtown arenas rarely make any money whatsoever,” he said in a recent interview. “The notion that they will do better than break even is whistling in the dark. ... Rock concerts and college basketball can’t pay the bill.”
Akron and UA
Plusquellic understands Hill’s warning but remains convinced that Akron needs a facility.
He said there are money-losing endeavors that make sense, such as Canal Park stadium, home of the RubberDucks baseball team, because it had a dramatic and positive impact on downtown, where there are new restaurants, entertainment venues, shops and student housing.
“Without that baseball stadium, downtown would pretty much still be dead,” he contends.
Plusquellic thinks the push for an arena, which he envisions seating between 7,500 to 8,000, is gaining steam. He says he has the perfect spot — a city-owned parking lot across from Canal Park.
“I think enough people are starting to coalesce around the idea that it needs to be done,” he said.
The mayor, frustrated over the years when UA officials haven’t heeded his advice, is irritated that there is no agreement on moving the arena from campus to downtown.
“I think it should go in the middle of campus on a big, grassy knoll,” he said facetiously. “Anything I say, the university, for whatever reason, says we should do the opposite.”
Criticism of Rhodes Arena has existed for years. In the early 1980s, the state reduced its support, affecting dramatically the size and number of seats. UA trustees named the facility for Gov. James A Rhodes, who had helped secure funding, but that, too, was controversial. Rhodes was responsible a dozen years earlier for sending the National Guard onto the nearby Kent State campus, where four students were shot to death May 4, 1970, during a war protest. Some in the community wanted the facility to be named for an athletic leader.
Ted Curtis, UA’s vice president for capital planning and facilities management, noted that even though the men’s basketball program has been successful, it hasn’t benefited from the dramatic change in the campus landscape.
The team, led by coach Keith Dambrot, has had eight consecutive 20-win seasons, three MAC Tournament championships and subsequent NCAA Tournament bids.
“We improved our track and field situation. We built a new football stadium. We built a women’s intercollegiate fast-pitch field. We built a new soccer field,” Curtis said. “So, we’ve taken care of a lot of the major sports, yet basketball we haven’t done a thing for.”
As for where a new arena should go, Curtis said he’d like to rebuild where Rhodes Arena is now. But, he said, if having a new facility meant building it downtown, he would set aside his preference.
“If we can get a new arena for our terrific basketball program and it was going to be built on Main Street, I would be happy for that,” he said.
However, he’s more conservative than the mayor on seating, saying he thinks 5,000 would be ideal, with flexibility to add for some events.
Curtis said UA hasn’t moved on the issue because the money isn’t available. The IMPACT 2020 report has ambitious fundraising goals, including bringing in $5 million annually from donors, completing a $100 million capital campaign and boosting sponsorship revenue to $1.5 million a year.
Dick Pogue, president of UA’s board of trustees, said in a recent email that community support “is very important, whether a new arena is built or the current one is upgraded.”
“At this point, no decision has been made,” he said, adding that the UA administration and the board “look forward to continuing conversations with the city and community leaders.”
Where university and city officials agree is this: Dambrot and his team deserve a better facility.
Dambrot, who is in his 10th season as coach, said he would love to have a new or updated arena.
“No question it would help with recruitment,” he said. “The ones with the most get the best players. The ones with the least get the worst players.”
Dambrot called Rhodes Arena “below average for a program like ours.” He rattled off a list of competitors with better arenas: Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Buffalo. He said Rhodes Arena is on par with Kent State, Central and Miami. Some universities, like Central, have older arenas, but new practice facilities.
Dambrot, an Akron native, said he has no preference for location.
“I’m for whatever’s best for everybody,” he said. “I just think it will come down to where the money comes from.”
Many local officials think a downtown arena would be a good draw — especially in colder months when Lock 3 Park and the baseball stadium aren’t up and running. Plusquellic said the facility could offer minor-league sporting events, concerts and ice skating.
“I think anytime you have added amenities to downtown to draw people in, it adds and is a positive,” said Gregg Mervis, president and CEO of the Akron/Summit County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It needs to be vetted and understood.”
Suzie Graham, executive director of Downtown Akron Partnership, said she agrees that an arena could be a good addition, but would need to be well thought out.
“The arena is tough,” she said. “There needs to be strategic thought behind what to do for the community. ... We shall see.”
Graham and others share a concern that an arena could draw business away from other venues. They point to the nearby Akron Civic Theatre, John S. Knight Center and UA’s E.J. Thomas Hall.
However, Howard Parr, executive director of the Civic, says he favors an arena and thinks the closer it is to the 2,600-seat theater, the better for generating interest in both venues.
“I don’t see it as competition,” he said. “The type of entertainment events would be too big for anything that could play at the Civic.”
Parr noted the Akron area offers a market large enough to support the right kind of facility.
“The content would matter — sports, entertainment options, other types of events,” he said. “It could not be any one thing.”
But, as Curtis noted, there is no money available.
The existing bed tax already supports the John S. Knight Center and Civic Theatre construction bonds.
Summit County Executive Russ Pry said a discussion several years ago to use Lucas County’s approach of raising the bed tax went nowhere.
“Could we use a sales tax? Would voters approve it? These are all questions I don’t have answers to right now,” Pry said.
“Does it have the potential to be good, the answer is, ‘Yes,’ ” Pry said. “I still see a number of hurdles to be worked through.”
For one, he said, the city and UA need to get on the same page.