Firms suggest $27M county arena


Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 12:14 a.m.

A 50,000-square-foot arena that could seat up to 7,500 and cost around $27 million is what Alachua County should consider for its new fairgrounds to lure concerts, sporting competitions, trade shows and other events, a consultant told the county Tourist Development Council on Wednesday.

The firms, Economics Research Associates and HOK Smith Forkner, said the building would earn the county little direct money but would generate more than $52.4 million for the local economy.

"The market we find to be surprisingly strong," said Bill Owens of Economic Research. "There is widespread interest in a facility in Alachua County. We are not competing with Jacksonville. This is a market that interests folks doing different kinds of events."

But the data was troubling to some council members, who questioned whether the small amount of money the county would earn from the arena is enough to justify it.

Council member Bob Todd said similar arenas elsewhere are struggling to book events, while member Lori Pennington-Gray said the estimates on the number of events the arena could lure might be inflated.

"I'm concerned about the bottom line and the new business. Is the return on investment enough to make it worth it?" she said. "I'm not opposed to the idea. I'm just concerned with the numbers. I just want to make sure we know what we are getting into."

The new fairgrounds site is on Waldo Road at 69th Avenue. It will eventually replace the existing fairgrounds on NE 39th Avenue, which will be developed as a commerce park.

Finding money to build the arena will be a considerable hurdle should the Alachua County Commission agree with the concept.

The proposed 1 percent increase on the 3 percent tax charged to customers of county hotels and other lodging would raise about $10 million. Money also could be sought from grants and the federal government if, for instance, the arena is built to FEMA standards for use as an emergency shelter.

Also, a group of residents is considering launching a referendum for a one-cent sales tax increase. County officials said they may propose the arena as a project that could be built with the extra revenue.

Almost 5 million people live within 100 miles of Gainesville, which is expected to grow to more than 5.7 million by 2012. A 50,000-square-foot facility would attract the kinds of events that would be able to tap that market, Owens said.

When weighing revenue against expenses, the arena would lose an estimated $141,061 its first year but gradually turn that around to earn $15,890 by the fifth year. Modest increases would continue after that.

Those estimates are based on the number of days the arena would be used for various types of activities - family/spectator/concert events, meetings/social events, sporting/equestrian competitions and trade shows/conventions. The county could decide to focus more heavily on events that raise more money, such as sports, to increase revenue.

Gainesville Sports Commission Executive Director Jack Hughes said the county would be able to lure many events that have been turned away because of a lack of space. He cited national adult and youth volleyball tournaments, weightlifting championships, martial arts tournaments and many types of equestrian competitions.

"Believe me, there are big rodeos and other things that we are not doing. There is much more than can be done," Hughes said.

The $27 million is the estimated cost for only the arena, which has suggested permanent seating of 5,000 with another 2,500 in floor seating. The other buildings, including a dirt-floored equestrian building, barns and restrooms, would be separate projects.

Assistant County Manager Rick Drummond said the commission may receive a presentation on the development of the fairgrounds, which would include the arena, in February.

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 352-374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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