Time to Talk About Blue Cross Arena Again

Upgrades and improvements to Blue Cross are coming. Maybe. Eventually. After over a year of silence the topic is back in the news.

(Updated September 13, 2018 — noted below in the timeline)

Three things before going a little more in depth:

1) Blue Cross Arena is a City of Rochester problem, not a Rochester Americans problem. The City owns the building and it’s used all year, the Amerks are just a tenant.

2) I’ve asked questions, sent emails and have been told that the Rochester Americans are committed to Rochester and are confident with the direction things are headed between them, the City of Rochester and Blue Cross Arena.

3) No one knows what upgrades will happen at Blue Cross Arena or when.

4) Through freedom of information requests there are no meetings on record between Pegula Sports and Entertainment and the Town of Henrietta about a new arena. This is only mentioned because for years there have been rumors of a potential new arena in the suburbs.

This story about upgrades to Blue Cross Arena had been sitting in the drafts section here for some time waiting for something new to happen. Two things have happened. The Buffalo News ran a story about improvements to KeyBank Center in Buffalo and made a brief mention of Rochester and there was a recent tour of the building. Not much but it’s something.

A statement from the Pegula’s had the following:

“We are currently renovating the premium clubs at New Era Field using private dollars, while working closely with the city of Rochester to make improvements at Blue Cross Arena using both public and private funds.”

[ Buffalo News – Sabres agree that KeyBank Center needs an extreme makeover ]

A recent Amerks practice featured a tour of the building between City officials, SMG and the Amerks. The positive news from that is that we know the City of Rochester remembers that the building still exists.

This could be the first time that the mention of private funds has been mentioned. The city seems to have a tight grip on the building while the Pegula’s want more of a voice. You can’t blame them, they know what they’re doing.

The Rochester Americans have been operating on a year to year lease with the City of Rochester and SMG Arena and one of, if not the primary hold-up for a long-term lease is the aging building.

For a quick comparison, the Syracuse Crunch have a lease with the On Center in Syracuse through at least 2025. The arena in Syracuse saw $10 million in upgrades between 2008 and 2015 that brought the ice surface up to AHL standards, new seats, upgraded scoreboard and behind the scenes facilities.

Updated: Syracuse will be spending an additional $8.5 million after the season is over on upgrades to concessions, suites, bathrooms and much more. Read more on all of those upgrades: here, here, here, and here. On top of all of that the Onondaga County and Syracuse Crunch have been working on a 12 year lease.

Since 2015 there’s been $10.5 million spent on The Aud in Utica by the state for upgrades that included upgrade concessions, new video boards, an Irish pub, suites and an updated concourse. As far as I know the lease with the Utica Comets runs through the end of the 2018/2019 season. The Canucks had signed a six-year agreement in 2013.

[ Read more about the Utica upgrades here ]

The City of Rochester has done studies, released plans and supposedly allocated millions of dollars from the state over the course of the last four years (timeline below) and the only thing to show for it is a $425,000 billboard.

2016 photo of the marquee from 13WHAM

Here’s a very brief history of the last four years in Rochester:

  • July 2014 – A $38.5 million makeover was envisioned for the arena that could add restaurants, outdoor seating, lower club seats, party pits and improvements to the lobby.
  • December 2014 – The city put out requests for proposals relating to the envisioned makeovers.
  • February 2016 – An economic feasibility study recommended $24 million in upgrades. The upgrades recommended upgrading seats, the concourses and concessions.
  • February 2016 – That $24 million in upgrades was scaled down to $16 million by the City.
  • June 2016 – $10 million in capital grants was awarded to Blue Cross Arena by the Albany officials.
  • July 2016 – The Buffalo Sabres said that a preseason game against the Minnesota Wild would take place at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pennsylvania because Blue Cross Arena was inadequate.
  • December 2016 – The $425,000 marquee was unveiled outside of the arena. A giant TV screen that no one looks at.
  • April 2017 – Local officials had been trying to get more than the $10 million awarded and due to the delayed state budget the $10 million was placed in limbo and seems to have vanished.
  • February 2018 – “Roc the Riverway” was unveiled for downtown Rochester and one of the items it included was a $37 million renovation to Blue Cross Arena to be completed in 5 to 10 years.
  • April 2018 – City of Rochester issues a request for proposal for bathroom and audio/visual upgrades that will cost $3.5 million. To be completed in 2020. New bathrooms, new speakers and a bunch of wiring for $3.5 million but not for another two years. You can view the proposal here. Chances are the link will eventually disappear, view the documents here and here.
  • May 2018 – On top of the April 2018 the City has added an “Exchange St expansion” to the project. View full details here.
  • May 9, 2018 – 13WHAM reported “Dramatic changes” coming for Blue Cross Arena mentioning “from a new riverside restaurant to new bathrooms, the changes coming to the Blue Cross Arena could launch the venue into a new era.”
  • As of May 9, 2018 there were not any proposals issued by the City of Rochester for a new riverside restaurant.
  • June 20, 2018 – City of Rochester and SMG terminate the remainder of the existing contract through December 2019.
  • July 12, 2018 – D&C reports that Pegulas may start running BCA as of August 1st
  • July 26, 2018 – Rochester City Council approved PSE management and Blue Cross Arena upgrades. [ Full details here ]
  • September 13, 2018 – At a press conferencing announcing the PSE was awarded an National Lacrosse League expansion franchise they also announced the purchase and installation of a new scoreboard along with the first look at the possible riverside restaurant. [ Full details here ]

**

The 13WHAM article goes on to say:

“It’s about time for another regeneration of the building,” said General manager Jeff Calkins, “and how we use the building today is much different than how we used it 20 years ago.”

Calkins said the changes are needed if the venue wants to keep fans coming back.

“We really need additional and flexible space for whatever event we’re hosting that night,” he said.

Other changes include an added locker room, a two-story addition for added concessions and office space along Exchange Street – as well as video boards for inside the arena.

Calkins says the changes are dramatic especially along the riverside, which will be one of two major exterior sections getting a more modern look to match the arena lobby.

“It’s help sort of anchor down this facility,” said Calkins. “We have the main lobby, but with the additional glasses area on the riverside will really enhance and beautify that river look.”

Calkins says work to redo the restrooms and locker rooms will get underway this summer. He says the larger work to transform the outside could begin as early as next year.

**

We’ve gone full circle. From $38.5 million down to $10 million and now back to $37 million.

Updated April 2018 – new bathrooms and speakers for $3.5 million that will take two years to be completed.

Updated May 2018 – The Exchange St expansion was added to the list along with a 13WHAM article mentioning a riverside restaurant.

Updated September 2018 – The first look at a possible riverside restaurant.

Not one study or discussion took place about the possibilities of a new arena.

If you’ve made it this far, a point back above, the Rochester Americans are committed to the City of Rochester and encouraged by the direction things are going. There’s a lot of work to be done but they’re committed to Rochester.

The last upgrades to the War Memorial in Rochester were completed in 1998 at a cost of $41 million. That was 20 years ago. The construction was started before Alexander Nylander was even born.

Those renovations worked to some extent but 20 years later it’s easy to see in hindsight that the city simply put cosmetic upgrades on a building that is now 60 years old.

A low ceiling is the number one problem with the arena and there’s no way that can be changed. Touring concerts and events skip Rochester because of the limitations of the venue. Rochester can sell the tickets, but the venue isn’t capable of handling the the stages and production.

Acoustics in the building are a major issue as well. Sound engineers have been brought in over the years to try and correct the issue for sporting events but haven’t been able to fix it. Depending on where you sit you might not be able to talk to the person next to you and in other seats you can have a conversation at normal levels.

Are upgrades to concourses, concessions, seats, suites and bathrooms (try finding a stall door that locks) enough for the future or is it time to have serious discussions about a new arena? The arena goes well beyond the Rochester Americans hockey team and more about Rochester and what kind of city it wants to become.

Allentown, PA completed the PPL Center in 2012 at a cost of $282 million making it one of the newest. Besides hockey it hosts a lot of touring concerts and events that Rochester, NY could sell tickets for but doesn’t because of the building limitations.

The “Roc the Riverway” upgrades would push arena improvements out until 2023 through 2028 which could be thirty years since the last major upgrades. The $37 to $38 million originally talked about will certainly see costs increases since those studies were completed.

In 2028 the building will be almost 75 years old.

Does Rochester want to move up in the world and be a competitor or does it want to be left behind? Where would a new arena be built? Could Blue Cross Arena be replaced with a new building? Could tenants find temporary homes while that happens? Where would the money come from?

Maybe a new building isn’t realistic, that’s acceptable. We’ll never know until someone within the city has a vision to think about something different.

There’s no easy answers especially when it comes to finding the money but one thing is certain, new TV’s in the concourses should be the easiest upgrades. Our great grandparents have newer TV’s than these relics…