During the NHL All-Star Weekend the conversation came up several times about whether or not it was a good decision to have Raleigh’s premier arena outside of the downtown area. (The RBC is located off of Wade Avenue and not near the downtown area.)
The image to the right was shown on the Versus network and depicted the RBC in a downtown (one where several of the buildings existed in duplicate) and it isn’t hard to imagine that as a nice fixture in our vibrant and exciting urban area. Why wasn’t downtown selected as the site for the ‘Entertainment and Sports Area’ for Raleigh – the answer dates back further than you might think and the answer was in this week’s NewsCOR Raleigh’s Weekly Newsgram published by the City of Raleigh Public Affairs Department.
THE CITY OF RALEIGH’S HISTORY OF SUPPORT OF THE RBC CENTER
The autumn of 1999 brought a special excitement to Raleigh. For the very first time the Carolina Hurricanes took to the ice and North Carolina State University (NCSU) began a new era of Wolfpack basketball in the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Raleigh.
The following is a look back to see how this facility came to be. Why is it located near Carter-Finely Stadium on Wade Avenue? Why is it also a hockey arena? How was it funded?
GENESIS OF THE PROJECT
It all began at a breakfast meeting in 1984 at the Radisson Hotel on what was then Fayetteville Street Mall. Gathered were Mayor Avery Upchurch, City Manager Dempsey Benton, City Attorney Thomas McCormick, Charlie Bryant and Steve Stroud. While many in the community recognized the need for a new N.C. State basketball arena, this was the first discussion of the City of Raleigh partially financing the construction of such a facility.
Directly following the meeting, Mayor Upchurch took the idea to the City Council, which appointed the Committee of ’85 to consider the options for building the new arena. Mr. Stroud was named chairman of the committee.
DOWNTOWN AS THE SITE
Following 18 months of committee meetings and consideration of a feasibility study and a traffic-impact study, the Committee of ‘85 presented its report to the City Council on Jan. 22, 1987. The report stated:
Raleigh is the only major city in the Southeast without an arena Downtown. If Raleigh was to continue to be competitive, it must build a first-class arena Downtown;
McDowell/Salisbury-South/Cabarrus, with its 35 lanes of ingress and egress, was the best site for the arena;
A master plan for Downtown, including the new arena, an expanded convention center and a new performing arts center should be drawn-up promptly;
The arena would be a boon for Downtown revitalization, and should be the centerpiece of our center city; and
A bond referendum including the arena, the convention center and the performing arts center should be taken to the voters as quickly as possible.
Following an exhaustive process of public review, the City Council adopted the master plan for downtown, known as the Major Events and Performing Arts Complex Master Plan on March 21, 1989. The plan called for the City to pay for $32 million of the arena’s estimated total cost of between $60 million and $65million. The City would assume responsibility for:
- $4 million for arena land;
- $15 million for the parking facility and land;
- $3 million for street and utility improvements; and,
- $10 million for arena construction.
The next step was to take the arena question to the voters. Mayor Upchurch proposed presenting the arena, the convention center and the performing arts center funding to the voters in the fall of 1989 bond referendum.
However, several members of the council voiced concerns. Would an arena be beneficial to Downtown revitalization? Would the arena’s operations costs be too burdensome for the City? Was NCSU supportive of the location? The previous year the General Assembly had appropriated $1.5 million for a facility plan, focusing on property adjoining Carter-Finley Stadium. The NCSU Board of Trustees had approved a matching amount to complete financing the plan. Was NCSU going to build an arena on Wade Avenue regardless, leaving the Downtown arena under used? Despite many attempts to answer these questions satisfactorily, Mayor Upchurch could never gain a majority vote to send the arena bond referendum to the voters.
WESTSIDE LOCATION GAINS ATTENTION
Acknowledging the futility of pursuing the Downtown site, in December 1990, the City led the formation of the North Carolina Entertainment and Sports Complex Planning Committee to study the feasibility of and opportunities for a new complex elsewhere. The committee included representatives of the City of Raleigh, Wake County, NCSU, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, and the North Carolina Department of Administration.
In October 1991, the Planning Committee’s report re-emphasized the need for a new arena stating: “If Raleigh/Wake County are to maintain its reputation as a vibrant, growing community, it must have a modern entertainment and sport facility.”
After analyzing strategies for development and the impact of a complex in the Carter-Finley Stadium area, the committee recommended that as the site for the new arena. It offered the following reasons for choosing the location:
- Availability of sufficient undeveloped property;
- Accessibility of infrastructure;
- Proximity of existing facilities;
- Accessibility of arena to regional, national and international travel; and,
- Proximity to population center.
The recommendations of the Planning Committee were accepted, and the site adjoining Carter-Finley Stadium was agreed upon as the official location for the new arena.
For quite some time this west Raleigh location had been a speculated site for the new arena. In the late 80s, then NCSU Athletic Director Jim Valvano had proposed building the arena near Carter-Finley Stadium to create a “Meadowlands-like” complex. This proposal was presented to the N.C. General Assembly in 1988. The General Assembly appropriated $1.5 million to plan the new facility. The NCSU Board of Trustees provided matching funds.
CITY/COUNTY BECOME FUNDING PARTNERS
In September 1992, the City of Raleigh became a funding partner in the construction of the new arena. The City signed an interlocal agreement with Wake County committing $22 million to the arena. The funds came from a countywide prepared food/hotel tax.
The arena was to cost $66 million. The State, the City and County, and N.C. State University were to be equal one-third partners, contributing $22 million each. Because of escalating costs, the final contribution from the City and County totaled more than $75 million.
CENTENNIAL AUTHORITY FORMED
The Centennial Authority was established by the General Assembly in July 1995 and charged with oversight of construction and operations of the arena. The City of Raleigh and the County of Wake were given two appointees each to the 13-member authority.
Mr. Stroud was appointed by the N.C. House of Representatives to serve on the authority, and subsequently was elected its chairman.
NHL COMES TO RALEIGH
The Centennial Authority’s first meeting was in September 1995. The following spring, the authority formed a committee to explore what kinds of professional sports franchises might want to join the NCSU men’s basketball team as tenants in the new arena. This idea strengthened an effort initiated by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and supported heartily by City officials to recruit a National Hockey League team to Raleigh.
In September 1996, the chamber’s group, assisted by Mayor Tom Fetzer, launched a bid for an NHL expansion team. Even though the bid was withdrawn, much credit is given to this effort for successfully wooing the Hartford Whalers in May 1997 to become the Carolina Hurricanes. The ‘Canes played the 1998 and 1999 seasons in Greensboro Coliseum in eager anticipation of moving into their very own brand new arena in Raleigh.
Accommodating hockey required substantial changes to the facility, of which the ‘Canes owner, Peter Karmanos, agreed to pay. Even so, the arena’s new price tag had doubled to $132 million. A generous increase in funding – $48 million exactly – had to come from somewhere before construction contracts could be let.
The Centennial Authority turned to the City of Raleigh and Wake County for help. In June 1997, the Raleigh City Council and the Wake County Commissioners unanimously approved a contract to finance an additional $48 million in construction costs. The funds would come from hotel tax revenues.
The commitment made the City of Raleigh and Wake County the largest financial contributors – $70 million – to the $132 million arena.
Just a month after the City and County’s actions – July 21, 1997 – ground was broken for the arena.
Yet the project still was saddled with cost overruns due to delays and redesign – and once again the City of Raleigh and Wake County were asked to help. And once again they did.
By February 1999, the facility’s total cost had swollen to $158 million. There was a budget shortfall of $26 million. The City Council authorized use of $5.2 million from an arena construction bond-debt reserve fund. The $5.2 million completed a financing package to cover the budget shortfall. The reserve is an insurance policy, using future hotel tax revenues as revenue. The plan approved by the City Council saved the Centennial Authority at least $400,000 in costs it would have incurred if it had secured a bank loan. As in all funding agreements involving the hotel tax funds, the Wake County Board of Commissioners also approved the $5.2 million authorization. The authorization of the use of the $5.2 million hiked the City and County’s joint contribution to $75.2 million.
The City agreed to the authorization of the use of the $5.2 million only when the General Assembly agreed to expand the number of Centennial Authority members appointed by the City and County from two to four each. City Manager Dempsey Benton and City Attorney Thomas McCormick were appointed to serve on the authority, with terms beginning Jan. 1, 1999. These appointments assured the City of Raleigh and Wake County – the arena’s foremost financial supporters – more voice in the final construction and operation of the facility.
The arena was completed in October 1999, in time for the Carolina Hurricanes’ season opener.