Facelift At Arena Keeps It In Vogue

Craig Harris
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 27, 2003

Sidewalk dining with a cityscape view, outdoor movies and even a Starbucks.

A new chic locale? Nope. Just a renovation of the Purple Palace.

A $50 million facelift of America West Arena, home of the National Basketball Association's Phoenix Suns and concerts, is nearing completion. Operators hope the renovation will keep the 11-year-old facility a downtown destination.

Improvements include a 15,000-square-foot glass pavilion with ticket counters; a Paseo walkway with a projection-surface canopy, food outlets and a bar; a new Italian restaurant, a Starbucks and a team shop. Also: an outside TV studio for pre- and post-game shows, an elaborate water fountain, five escalators and air-conditioned ticket booths.

"When we opened in '92-'93," Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo said, "it was the beginning of a rebirth downtown, and we were the latest and greatest state-of-the-art building. Then in 10 years, we are the 20th-oldest building in the league (NBA) . . . You need to continue to put improvements in your facility because the buying public demands it."

When fans come to the home opener Thursday to see the Suns play the Cleveland Cavaliers, with well-hyped-rookie LeBron James, many of the new amenities will still be under construction. But they will open gradually as the season progresses.

"Everything we have created is big-city oriented," Suns President Rick Welts said. "This is not a renovation. This is a whole new concept."

For more Phoenix Suns coverage, check out www.azcentral.com, Arizona's homepage.

Much of the concept has the amenities facing outward, toward downtown, so residents can enjoy them even if they don't have tickets to the events.

The renovation began in June 2001, when Chicago-based Levy Restaurants took over the food service and when improvements, such as additional women's restrooms, were made on the concourse. The Platinum Club, a 13,000-square-foot exclusive lounge with full view of the arena, also was added. This year, much of the exterior was covered in glass to give the arena a modern look.

"They are really at the cutting edge of a grand experience," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "They are making it more a part of the city life, and they are doing it without losing a game in terms of a construction schedule."

Stern said what makes the arena renovations unique is that they face outward, which merges them into an urban setting. He said that as other NBA arenas begin to age, their owners likely will take a cue from the Suns.

He added that the renovations likely will not make much of a difference in whether Phoenix gets an All-Star game, which Colangelo is seeking by 2009.

But Stern said it is realistic to expect Phoenix would land an All-Star game before the end of the decade because America West Arena is a great building for games, and Phoenix has "great hotel stock, great climate and great management."

The renovations began to formulate in 1999, when Colangelo was visiting the new Staples Center in Los Angeles. He wanted to add some of the same amenities to AWA.

The Suns, which run the arena through a related business called Sports & Entertainment Services, also realized the next year that they would be losing the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes, who were looking to build a competing arena in Scottsdale.

The Coyotes ended up in Glendale, where their new arena will open in December. The Coyotes are already looking to steal major concerts and shows from AWA after signing a deal last week with AEG, a major Los Angeles-based concert producer.

The Coyotes also have a major financial advantage as Glendale is paying for nearly 86 percent of their $210 million arena, while the Suns and their investors are paying for roughly 80 percent of the AWA improvements. Phoenix is picking up the rest from revenues generated at the arena.

"You used to go to a city or county and ask for $300 million to build a new building. But except for the city of Glendale, you can't do that anymore," Welts said.

Patrick Grady, economic development director for Phoenix, said the city's contribution is a good investment and will help the city-owned America West Arena remain competitive with other entertainment venues.

Welts added that one of the major coups in the renovation was landing a Starbucks, which will become the first company-owned store in an NBA arena.

Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, said the deal benefits both sides because Starbucks gets additional foot traffic from events and being in a prime location, while AWA becomes a stronger downtown destination.

Schultz, also principal owner of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, believes other companies will build around AWA.

"Starbucks has become, over the years, one of the leading consumer brands," Schultz said. "We have been able to provide opportunities for other national retailers to follow us because we have validated the neighborhood or community."

Next to 1,200-square-foot Starbucks along Jefferson Street will be a 3,500-square-foot team shop and a 4,500-square-foot Italian restaurant, iL Palazzetto/ZZ Lounge, which will have open-air, street-level dining. The restaurant will open Nov. 11, while Starbucks will open Nov. 3, and both will be open throughout the year, even when there are no events at the arena.

Near Third Street is the Paseo, which will be covered by a 48- by 316-foot canopy that serves as a projection surface. The glass covering on the building's east side will be used to show projected images as well. The Paseo will have food service and a bar, and it will be home to the outdoor TV studio for pre- and post-game shows.

Welts said that when the Paseo opens in December, it could be used for corporate functions and outside movies. He said the Suns might replace sponsorship signs inside the arena with new electronic ones once the $50 million project is completed.

Grady, the economic development director, said the covered Paseo area could serve as an attraction to out-of-town conventions based at nearby Civic Plaza.

In April, the glass pavilion should be completed at the front entrance of the arena at First and Jefferson streets. Along with the ticket counters, the inside will have a massive video wall and escalators. Outside will be the new water fountain.

Brian Kearney, executive director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, said the renovations will continue to enhance the Copper Square area downtown.

"It will help the arena become integrated in the urban fabric . . . When you create activity on the street and sidewalk, that serves as a catalyst to the next business investment," Kearney said.

COPYRIGHT 2003, AZCENTRAL.COM. Used with permission.


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