Focus, Lakeshore, and Sports Business

City, county partner on Walker Arena

Venue is scheduled for improvements that will expand use and attract more entertainment.

September 18, 2015
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) L.C. Walker Arena is entering a season of renovations under new collaborative management.

As a result of the recent partnership between the city of Muskegon and Muskegon County, L.C. Walker Arena, at 955 4th St. and Western Avenue in downtown Muskegon, is scheduled to undergo a series of improvements and renovations.

Originally built in the 1960s, the approximately 5,100-seat L.C. Walker Arena sits on nearly 1.8 acres of land and includes a 200-by-85-foot ice surface, meeting rooms and a convention center.

Until recently, the arena was managed by Loggers Hockey LLC under a manager/tenant business model with a contract expiration set for September 2016, at which time ownership would revert back to the city of Muskegon.

The city and county entered into negotiations earlier this year to determine future funding, operations and management responsibilities of the arena in light of the upcoming expiration and in an effort to maintain its operations for the future, according to the June 4 Muskegon County Board of Commissioners agenda.

As of June 9, county board members agreed to enter into discussions to develop a business model and contract between the city and county to manage and operate the arena for one year.

Frank Peterson, Muskegon city manager, said the partnership was essentially prompted by recognizing that, although the arena is located in the middle of Muskegon, it provides services to residents throughout the county.

“We had this huge building that costs a lot of money, it doesn’t cash-flow very well, and at what point do we bring a partner in that actually has something to gain or lose a little, a bit like a stakeholder?” said Peterson. “We brought in people from Norton Shores, North Muskegon and the county, and we started talking.”

The conversation was intended to determine whether individuals outside the city viewed the arena as an asset, and the county and surrounding cities indicated they valued it as an important part of the community. Based on the feedback, the county and city decided to take over management of the arena, according to Peterson.

“The goal is to make the L.C. Walker Arena as flexible as possible from a use standpoint, and make it as big a contributor to the local economy from a tourism standpoint as possible,” said Peterson. “There are a couple of phases to the improvements; some of them are going to be easy for us to get done quickly and others are more long-term investments. They will probably take some planning and a little bit of time to pull the financing together.”

The city and county already have begun investing in improvements, such as purchasing 11 rolls of artificial indoor turf.

“We are adding new flooring options. We added a field turf so we can accommodate a planned arena football team that is going to be moving in the spring, and accommodate a couple of indoor soccer games and tournaments in the winter,” said Peterson.

“The expectation is, when summer rolls around, we will be able to do indoor soccer and football more regularly.”

Muskegon County also purchased a roughly $150,000 insulated ice deck system to provide a more efficient change between ice and regular flooring for hockey, basketball, concerts, consumer shows and cultural events.

“We already ordered it and we are hoping to have it mid-October. It will go into storage until our first event, which is in November,” said Peterson. “Then we will obviously use it throughout the year. We will have concerts scheduled, eventually basketball games there, and we are working with the West Michigan Lake Hawks (basketball team) to see if we can get them into the arena at a reasonable cost so they can call the arena home.”

The city and county also are investing in constructing a new locker room in the basement to accommodate the Reeths Puffer High School varsity hockey program as the arena’s newest tenant.

The roughly $40,000 to $60,000 project includes adapting an old conference room by adding bathrooms, showers and lockers, according to Peterson. The Reeths Puffer hockey team will join the Lumberjacks, Norton Shores Youth Hockey and the Muskegon Junior Jacks Youth Hockey Association as the core hockey tenants.

There is also a community-wide effort underway to fund a wood sports floor, and renovation is occurring in the arena’s annex building, which is often used to stage concerts or events not quite large enough to fill the main arena. The owners of the new arena football team are developing a sports rehab and training center, which may include a partnership with a local hospital, according to Peterson.

Other renovations include: a $500,000 update to the heating and cooling system, which includes a new boiler and new dehumidifier to keep the ice cold and the building warm; an estimated $500,000 new roof; and at least $2 million to construct an entirely new façade for the Western Avenue entrance.

“The arena takes up a whole block, and during the day is essentially vacant, making it almost a dead block,” said Peterson. “The goal is to eliminate the main entrance to L.C. Walker and replace it with something more like a two-story building where you still get in and out of the arena but also has a hockey retailer, retail shops and maybe a restaurant. The expectation is the restaurant will overlook the ice deck in a sports-bar type atmosphere.”

Combining the potential $2 million in façade work and another $1 million to $1.25 million in additional improvements, Peterson said the estimate could total up to $3.5 million, depending on what the city and county decide to do.

“I think the renovations, assuming they will come to fruition the way we are envisioning them in our mind, will be a boon for Western Avenue. It will (offer) some available retail space that doesn’t exist right now and it will clear up what I call a dead block in the daytime,” said Peterson. “From a connectivity standpoint, we think it will be a big deal.”

The Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau is also in the process of hiring a sports and niche market sales executive to bring a variety of sports and tourism-based events to the arena.

“The more people downtown, the more opportunity to spend dollars, to frequent our businesses, to maybe consider Muskegon as a future destination,” said Peterson.

“We do kind of rely partly on tourism from one year to the next, and we think having more people here and seeing what Muskegon is all about and participating in all the things we have going on here, we think naturally it will be a positive.”

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