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Ailene Voisin: Orlando arena 'miracle' dazzles

By Ailene Voisin
Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Mar. 6, 2011 - 12:00

ORLANDO, Fla. – This is where NBA fantasies come true. Tucked in a corner of downtown, mere feet from the Church Street entertainment district and several miles from the world's most famous playground stands the sparkling, sophisticated Amway Center, the beauty of all arena beasts.

Luxury suites. Club seats. Parking within walking distance. Marvelous acoustics. Outdoor lounges with cushioned seats and stunning views. Bars and restaurants that welcome both the wealthy and the fans who buy the $5 cheap seats.

The place is functional and spectacular all in the same nine-acre space, a collage of the best arenas of the past generation. It's as if someone waved a wand and, after an 11-year ordeal, sprinkled pixie dust on the Orlando Magic's new home.

"A miracle that this got built," said Pat Williams, the Magic's co-founder and senior vice president. "Ten days after we reached agreement, the economy tanked. If we were off by a couple days, we would still be in the old building with all sorts of (relocation) rumors flying."

Kansas City? Las Vegas? Anaheim anyone? NBA arena situations invariably suffer from their own unique circumstances, but the league's small and midsize markets do share some degree of misery, with relocation a persistent threat.

The Charlotte Hornets fled because their arena was deemed inadequate. The SuperSonics left Seattle because of a bad lease agreement. The Kings are threatening to abandon Sacramento because Power Balance Pavilion fails to offer amenities and revenue streams available in the newer facilities.

And then every once in a while, a community's civic leaders and franchise owners overcome the thorny political and economic challenges and collaborate on a winner: a renovated or refurbished facility, or, in the Magic's case, a $280 million sports and entertainment complex that opened in October and is the class of the league.

Orlando isn't finished yet, though not by design. The original $1 billion, three-tier plan also included a $375 million performing arts center and approved another $175 million for expansion of the Florida Citrus Bowl. But when the economy sank, the arts center was tabled and only $10 million allocated for the most critical repairs at the Citrus Bowl.

The Amway Center was first in line largely because the Magic's owners – the DeVos family of Amway fame – contributed $50 million for construction, paid another $25 million for five area gymnasiums and agreed to $1 million lease payments over 30 years. The city donated $100 million in land. The public took on a one-cent increase in tourism taxes on hotel occupancy and municipal bonds – $100 million of which is guaranteed by the club.

"We created a very different business model," Magic president Alex Martins said.

The county provided the tax revenue, the city owns and operates the facility, and the Magic generates most of its revenue from ticket sales, marketing rights, sponsorships and partnerships.

Although the agreement wasn't subject to a public referendum, it required a majority approval of the city commissioners and a super majority vote of the county commissioners.

Passions ran high. An aggressive campaign led by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and former Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty was countered by an ardent anti-tax movement. Former county Councilmember Teresa Jacobs, who succeeded Crotty as county mayor, recalled blistering town hall exchanges.

"I was the swing vote for the county, and I scrutinized this project heavily," Jacobs said. "If you don't have public support, it's very difficult. But at the end of the day, we all recognized this was not a facility for the owner of a basketball team, that this is a community facility. Now, every time I drive by the building or see it on TV, I think to myself, 'This would have been the worst decision I could have made to have voted against it.' I would have regretted it for the rest of my life."

The game plan won

That Orlando has the league's finest facility can be attributed to the DeVos family's deep pockets, the captive audience of a one-team town, the tourism lure of Disney World and hotels that generated the taxes, the persistence of the region's political players and management rebuilding around All-Star Dwight Howard.
But much credit is also lavished upon Martins, 47, and his mentor, Williams, 70. A delightful man who is undergoing cancer treatment, Williams began fretting about the original Orlando Arena only years after it was completed in 1989.

"We built about the same time as Sacramento, Milwaukee, and the other three expansion teams (Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota)," Williams said, "and we missed out. Detroit built the Palace (of Auburn Hills) at the same time, and you have to give (former Pistons president) Tom Wilson credit. He came up with the radical concept of lower-bowl seating, suites down near the floor. … The Palace was a revolutionary building that changed all of sports."

The next generation of arenas built in Miami, Dallas, San Antonio, Boston, Washington, and even Salt Lake City in 1991, featured modern amenities and revenue streams that owners insist are imperative to remaining competitive.

Yet, as Williams and Martins attest, the Magic's pursuit of an Amway Center was a roller coaster of emotions, economic woes and political upheaval.

Magic executives and local leaders were negotiating for a new building or $75 million renovation when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. With terrorism fears battering tourism, talks were tabled for four years. Martins, who left the organization to earn his master's degree in business administration and work with other franchises, returned in 2005 and discovered an alienated, apathetic fan base. Season tickets were at an all-time low of 5,400.

"When we started the (arena) process back up, our very first poll asked: Should public dollars be used to fund this facility?' " Martins said. "The approval rate was in the high 20s."

The Magic hired a company to study demographics, determine the best location and implement a strategy. It launched a public awareness campaign, with town hall meetings, radio and TV commercials, season-ticket functions and community forums.

Williams and Martins, meanwhile, continued driving the message:

The Magic is good for business. The new sports and entertainment complex would revitalize downtown. This new venue is about entertainment … .

"What we found out," said Gary Sain of Visit Orlando, the city's convention and visitors bureau, "is that when you're trying to attract business, more and more, it matters what a city offers from an entertainment and cultural perspective."

The complex isn't simple

The historic Church Street district, just north of the Amway Center, is restricted to foot traffic, creating a lively, festival atmosphere. Those entering the arena are introduced to a glass and steel structure as functional as it is spectacular.
The concourses are spacious and comfortable, with something for everyone: a children's playground and kids retail shop; an outdoor sky bar with red cushioned seats and a view of the Orlando skyline; a TV studio that controls 1,100 digital monitors; shops and concession stands; and fine dining at Jernigan's, a three-level restaurant that overlooks the court and is accessible to everyone.

Prices are in accordance with the region's market size (Orlando is the 19th-largest media market). The arena has 60 suites, 68 loge boxes and 750 club seats, easily accessible by escalators.

But the full embrace of the place – the angle of the seating, the coziness of the bowl, the windows and natural light – distinguishes Amway from its peers.

"I think most people who were opposed to our arena … weren't sure what they were going to get," Martins said. "Now they realize it's a sports and entertainment complex. People come early and stay late, and everybody benefits."

Publication Date: Mar 6, 2011