Council opts to look into sports arena, convention center renovations

Rob Hunden
Rob Hunden

Phil Castle, The Business Times

After hearing the results of a feasibility study, the Grand Junction City Council decided to further investigate the possibility of constructing a sports arena and renovating Two Rivers Convention Center.

“We want to continue moving forward,” Mayor Phyllis Norris said at the conclusion of a two-hour workshop to discuss the proposal

Determining how to pay for what’s estimated to be a $62 million project could be among the first steps, said Councilman Rick Taggart. “That’s a major go, no go decision.”

The council met with Rob Hunden, the owner of Hunden Strategic Partners, to review the results of a feasibility study the real estate development advisory firm completed for an events center and improvements on the convention center.

Hunden said a sports arena seating 5,100 to 7,000 people could attract a minor league hockey team as well as bring more concerts and trade shows to Grand Junction. The arena  could be especially attractive, he said, when combined with renovations to update and enlarge Two Rivers Convention Center. Moreover, savings could be realized in operating the arena, convention center and Avalon Theater under the same management and staff.

Hunden recommended the city put into place a new governing structure to oversee those operations, however.

As for paying for the project, revenue bonds offer one option. Increased lodging taxes also could help in funding a portion of construction and operations, he said.

Under one proposal, the sports arena would be constructed just south of Two Rivers Convention Center in downtown Grand Junction. The arena would seat about 5,100 for hockey, the minimum required to attract a minor league team. Room for up to 2,000 additional seats would be available for other sports events or concerts, he said. The arena also could accommodate large trade shows.

Meanwhile, renovations at Two Rivers Convention Center would provide some of the “basics” needed to attract bigger conventions, including a larger main ballroom, additional meeting rooms and separate corridors for service workers.

While the convention center already constitutes the largest venue of its kind between Denver and Salt Lake City, changes are needed to offer even more space and a better experience, Hunden said. Convention centers typically need major renovations every 10 years, he added.

Under one plan, the project would add about 23,000 square feet of space to Two Rivers Convention Center, Hunden said.

It’s estimated the arena would cost $46.5 million, while the renovations and expansion of the convention center would cost $$15.6 million, he said.

The study showed, though, that it’s possible to support an arena and larger convention center, Hunden said.

The location of Grand Junction roughly midway between Denver and Salt Lake City constitutes in advantage in drawing on a regional population to attend sports events, concerts and other attractions, he said.

While there’s only about 150,000 people living in Mesa County, the number doubles within a two-hour drive from Grand Junction.

The market is large enough to support a minor hockey league team that would serve as an anchor tenant for an arena, Hunden said. In fact, there’s strong interest in bringing an East Coast Hockey League franchise to Grand Junction if a large enough arena is built, he added. “In terms of getting a team, that does not seem to be an issue.”

Grand Junction also offers a good location for mid-week performances of concerts and shows booked for consecutive weekends in Denver and Salt Lake City.

Moreover, Grand Junction constitutes an attractive destination for conventions and meetings with its historic downtown shopping and dining district and outdoor recreational amenities, Hunden said. ”People want to go to a destination. You guys actually have it in spades.”

It’s a matter of offering a better convention and meeting venue, he added.

There’s an opportunity to reduce the operational expenses of an arena and convention center as well as the Avalon Theater by using the same management and staff for all three, Hunden said.

The council should consider a different governing structure, though, to manage and market the facilities, Hunden said. He suggested an authority with a seven- or nine-member appointed board.

While the operation of sports arenas sometimes require subsidies, such facilities also can account for larger economic effects in a community in the visitors they attract, increased hotel and restaurant business and higher tax revenues, Hunden said.

Given the combined opportunities associated with a sports arena, convention center and theater in Grand Junction, Hunden said there’s a chance to break even and perhaps even make money on operations while also creating a substantial economic effect.

But the projects also will require a substantial commitment and investment, he said. “This will require some heavy lifting, no doubt about it.”