(HOST) You know those TV commercials with the crash test dummies where a car is driven into a cement wall in slow motion? Well, that’s what commentator Tim McQuiston thinks the proposed Burlington-area arena is starting to look like: a slow-motion car crash.
(MCQUISTON) Two years ago, UVM President Dan Fogel proposed that a multi-use arena be built on the university’s campus. The anchor tenants would be the UVM varsity sports, but the facility would also host other events to make it financially viable. UVM needs to upgrade its facilities, and the Burlington area could use a first-class event venue.
In fact, in 1997 the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce sponsored a study that asked whether the Burlington-area could host a viable convention center or arena. The consultant, not the one used for the UVM plan, concluded that a 10,000-seat arena at upwards of 40 million dollars could be viable if an anchor tenant could be found. At the time, UVM was not part of the plan, and the proposed anchor tenant was a minor league hockey team.
The Chamber’s consultant suggested that an arena in the 7,500-seat range would not be able to generate enough gross revenue, but that is more or less what UVM is proposing, and with UVM’s participation, it may be viable at upwards of 60 million at a 2008 construction date.
So why is this like a slow-motion car crash? Here’s why:
There are currently two opposing plans on the table. Just one week before the UVM plan was sent to Governor Douglas, the Champlain Valley Exposition released a plan of its own to build a similar arena at its location in Essex Junction. The UVM committee included three Expo members, but the Expo opposes siting an arena anywhere but at the Expo. You are not hearing this wrong.
This is a major political mess. There were no representatives from the City of Burlington on the UVM committee. There was a city councilor, but can you imagine an arena proposed for Chicago or Boston that was not led by the mayor’s office? The mayor’s office has been a good sport and supports the UVM plan, but, effectively, the city was snubbed. Furthermore, the mayor of Burlington was running for governor, and the UVM study is in the hands of that same governor he was trying to unseat.
Compromise does not seem possible either. There’s no in-between location. It’s UVM or the Expo – and only one arena will survive in this market. The Expo insists they will build their arena. UVM’s Fogel says his teams will not play there.
Now, I’m not even sure how the state was given the lead hand in this, but it’s probably because of the numerous stakeholders involved, local hotels included. UVM can’t really wait forever, and the state is painfully slow on development issues without any assurance of success, so I could see Dan Fogel saying: The heck with this, I’ll do it myself.
And that might be exactly what the state, the city and the hospitality industry want. But I think the Expo will protect its turf for as long as it takes.
This is Timothy McQuiston.
Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.