The number of youth hockey players has nearly tripled in the last five years, local hotels are packed when performers such as Sugarland pull their buses into Bloomington and several organizations have found a home for their annual fundraisers.
These are a few examples of how the 7,500-seat U.S. Cellular Coliseum has changed the landscape in Bloomington in the years since it opened on April 1, 2006.
The downtown arena has become the largest Twin City attraction, luring 283,691 people to events in 2010, according to the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The second largest local draw, the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, had 144,361 visitors last year.
After several years of operating losses, Central Illinois Arena Management President John Butler said the Coliseum is on pace this year to make $160,000 or more this fiscal year, which ends April 30. CIAM is in the middle of a 10-year contract to operate the Coliseum for the city.
That is a departure from the first four years when the building’s operation was subsidized by the city’s general fund; annual losses ranged from $636,655 in fiscal year 2008-09 to $84,303 in 2009-10.
“It has taken a few years, but the Coliseum has become a recognized venue among promoters,” said Butler. That recognition has helped the Coliseum land major concerts including Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn and, last month, Sugarland.
But how the Coliseum became a reality touched off a firestorm of controversy and hard feelings that resulted in three of the four aldermen who approved the project being voted off the council in 2005 and 2007. There is a segment of the community that remains upset that taxpayers will continue to pay for the $29.5 million in bonds that financed the construction until 2034 — when the project was originally pitched as not needing taxpayer assistance.
And the challenges persist as CIAM may be looking for a new hockey team and the city looks to refinance a portion of the bonds.
Despite the lingering controversy, the city-owned building has taken root and become a mainstay as a regional entertainment venue with professional hockey and football teams, concerts and other entertainment acts and as a community center hosting wedding receptions, high school graduations and fundraising events.
“I have never regretted my vote,” said former Mayor Judy Markowitz, who cast the tie-breaking vote when the Bloomington City Council met in January 2004 to decide whether the city should move forward on construction plans later that spring.
But as opponents are quick to point out, there is more to the financial picture than just the bonds — and that remains the sticking point for some residents who five years later still don’t think the arena should have been built — especially with taxpayer support.
The $29.5 million figure does not include about $45 million in interest, which the city is paying off through a 30-year taxable bond with a higher interest rate. The council is looking at refinancing about $10 million in Coliseum bonds in an effort to save as much as $4.9 million, and lower the city’s total debt faster, said city Finance Director Tim Ervin.
Under the proposal, the $10 million would be refinanced over 10 years instead of 20. That would reduce the interest rate and total interest costs for the city. At the current pace the city is making payments, it will have $3 million of the bonds paid for by 2020, but $13 million would be paid for under Ervin’s plan. But even if Ervin’s plan is approved, the remaining $19.5 million in bonds will not be paid for until 2034.
The city pays for the Coliseum bonds with about $2 million it receives from part of the city sales tax. The rate was increased from 7.5 to 7.75 percent in July 2008 when it became clear that revenue from operating the facility would not cover the city’s bond obligations. Any profits earned by CIAM from operating the building also go toward paying the bonds.
It is the city’s long-term debt that is one of the reasons Bud Hall doesn’t think the facility should not have been built in the first place.
“It’s a very expensive luxury that we didn’t need and we can’t afford,” said Hall, who helped organize the initial opposition to the arena plan. “We’ve been paying on this for how long now and the bond payments are just now starting to pay on the principle.”
The council vote to approve construction came just weeks before an advisory referendum that resulted in 6,793 people voting against building the arena versus 3,513 in support.
To Markowitz and many others, there is no denying the Coliseum is a dramatic improvement to the city’s overall quality of life.
“When I go to a concert and see 7,000 people having a good time, it was worth it,” she said. “When I go to a hockey game and see the pee wee players come out onto the ice — it’s wonderful to see. It does my heart good.”
Convention and visitors bureau director Crystal Howard said the Coliseum has benefited local hotels and motels and fueled a 10 percent increase in room occupancy in the Twin Cities since 2006.
“It has enhanced our quality of life because there is more to do, but also because it brings in visitors,” Howard said. “Those visitors add to our tax revenue.”
But Hall still regrets the council’s decision.
“I doubt that we would see a majority of voters say they were in favor of the building if held a vote on it today,” he said.
Ice center thriving
What sometimes is lost in the Coliseum “debate” is that the project also included the Pepsi Ice Center and a parking deck, bringing the total construction cost to $35.8 million.
The ice center is open to the public and operated by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department. Ice center manager Richard Beck said interest in ice sports has grown significantly since the center opened next to the Coliseum in May 2006.
In its first year, the center had 142 hockey players in its 18-year-old and under programs. This year, there are 415 youth hockey players. Also, the ice center has seen similar explosive growth in its adult hockey leagues, youth figure skating programs, curling and skating lessons.
“All the way around, kids are having fun,” Beck said. “I would love to have another sheet of ice or two.”
But he knows there isn’t money in the city’s budget to build another ice rink. He and Butler agreed they need to be resourceful in how they use the entire building to meet the demand and interest.
Howard said from the standpoint of marketing, having more meeting space for conventions would be helpful.
“When we are competing against venues such as those in Peoria and Springfield for conventions, we have to be creative and really use our skills to attract these groups,” Howard said. “But we have found a niche in the sports and religious conventions and when we bring people to the Coliseum, they enjoy the building and the service they receive.”
Using state tourism formulas, Butler estimates that all of the Coliseum’s events over the last five years have pumped $66 million into the local economy. On conventions alone, Howard figures the Coliseum has brought in $10 million in additional tax dollars from hotel rooms, restaurants, gasoline and other purchases since it opened.
Former Ward 7 Alderman Tom Whalen said that additional tax revenue is one of several factors that prove the Coliseum is a success.
“Here we are down the road a little bit and we are starting to see how it benefits the community,” said Whalen, who acknowledged he lost his council seat because of his support for the facility. “But I am proud of what I voted for,” he said.
By the Numbers
U.S. Cellular Coliseum
Fiscal year...Events...Attendance...Operating Costs*
*Operating costs do not include the roughly $2 million a year the city pays on the $29.5 million bonds issued to build the facility.
** Events and attendance for the current fiscal year are through the end of March; operating costs are through the end of February. The city's fiscal year ends April 30.
Source: City of Bloomington and Central Illinois Arena Management