BLOOMINGTON — Years of political wrangling and nearly 20 months of construction will yield the opening of the U.S. Cellular Coliseum in downtown Bloomington in 2006.
The city of Bloomington is investing $37 million into construction of the 7,000-seat arena at Front and Madison streets. But when it opens March 31, it will be the job of two native Twin City men to make sure the building is successful.
John Butler and Mike Nelson, who head up Central Illinois Arena Management, have a 10-year contract to manage the coliseum after it opens. That contract, approved by the City Council in October, allows Nelson and Butler to continue the work they started in 2003 to operate the Coliseum and fill its seats.
The pair also are two of three owners of the United Hockey League team that will call the arena its home and they will manage the United Indoor Football league team, the Bloomington Extreme.
Friends who taught and learned the sports entertainment business from Butler and Nelson say the two are a perfect fit to run a facility in their hometown.
"These two guys, when we were going strong in the 1980s, were creative guys who did a great job," said Pete Vonachen, an owner of the minor league baseball team, the Peoria Chiefs. "They made me look like a genius."
Often, Vonachen had to remind Butler that there were only nine innings in the game of baseball.
"I had to slow him down," Vonachen said. "John would come up with so many promotions and he wanted to do so much that I had to tell him we couldn't do everything he thought of because the game wasn't long enough."
Nelson, who has taken the lead in selling sponsorships and naming rights to the coliseum and the adjacent Pepsi Ice Rink, is a tremendous salesman, Vonachan said.
"He's the kind of guy people like when they meet him," Vonachen said. "He just has that ability."
"He has the ability to sell ice to an Eskimo," added Peoria Rivermen President Bart Rogers. "Spending money with a team is not a top priority for a lot of companies. But by building a relationship and giving them someone they can trust to deliver a return on their investment is the key to being successful in sports entertainment. Mike does that."
Aside from internships early in their careers, Butler and Nelson have spent much of their time working in the sports entertainment field in Central Illinois. Both worked for the two minor league teams in Peoria. And each worked in athletic programs at area universities, Butler at Bradley University and Nelson at Illinois State University.
In addition to their experience, both bring different strengths to the job. While Nelson is the salesman of the two, Butler is the one who knows how to bring the right combination of people together, Vonachen said.
Rogers learned about managing people and a team while Butler was president of the Rivermen.
"I could write a book about all the things John taught me," Rogers said. "But the number one thing is to have a calm, cool demeanor. There are a lot of issues to deal with when you're running a hockey team. The worst thing you can do is get your people riled up."
The two also have a great deal of determination, Vonachan said.
"They are going to work hard to make this succeed," Vonachen said. "These are two Bloomingtonians who are putting there whole lives on the line for this. There is nobody in (Central Illinois) better qualified to run it."