TCC arena entrance (proposed)

An artist's rendering of planned new Tucson Convention Center Arena entrance.

Renovation of the Tucson Convention Center Arena began March 10 in an effort to improve the experience of people attending shows and events at the 40-year-old arena.

The $7.8 million project, which is funded through the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose District, will focus on enhancing fan amenities, including new concession stands, restrooms, seating, lighting, sound video boards and scoreboards, according to Rio Nuevo Board secretary Mark Irvin. Construction began roughly 10 months after the board approved the project, according to a city of Tucson press release.

“I think it will be something that the city of Tucson will be very proud of,” Irvin said.

The project is scheduled to be completed in December, according to Irvin, who is overseeing the project with Rio Nuevo Board Chairman Fletcher McCusker.

“I think we’ve taken a structure that has pretty good bones and we’ve done a very good job of planning on how we’re going to reposition it,” Irvin said.

Irvin said the overall goal of the project is to improve the fan experience, which has suffered the past several years because of the arena’s deteriorating condition. A modern facility will improve the use of the arena and its visibility, he said.

“I think that when people walk into the arena, they’re going to say ‘Wow,’” Irvin said. “I think they’re going to very impressed with how the facility is being improved.”

The renovation will be done in phases because the arena is still an operating venue. Construction workers have to work around the schedules of shows and events, Irvin said.

Rio Nuevo contacted TCC Arena tenants to ask them how the renovations will affect their current and future needs.

“We can’t just close down the TCC arena and renovate it because there is a lot of stuff booked through there,” he said.

Rio Nuevo is a Tax Incremental Financing, or TIF, entity that receives approximately $12 to $15 million per year in funding from locally generated state sales tax dollars. TIF money is used for subsidizing community-development work, including street construction, water supply and park improvements, among other projects, according to the Rio Nuevo website.

Voters created the district in 1999, but by 2009, more $200 million had been spent with little accountability and not much to show for it. That caused the state to take over control from the city. In 2010, the state Auditor General determined that there was a gross mismanagement of funds when the city was controlling the board, according to Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

The city and Rio Nuevo then battled for two years, including in court, over past and future projects and over which entity owned or controlled several downtown properties, but in 2012, state Senate President Steve Pierce replaced two members of the board with McCusker and Chris Sheafe.

The state, when it took over, also required that Rio Nuevo not spend money on any project until renovation of the TCC and a TCC hotel were complete. A bill in the Legislature this year seeks to relieve the district of that requirement because of the just-begun renovations and because a convention hotel is not economically feasible currently. The bill has passed the Senate and is on the verge of passing the House.

The city and Rio Nuevo reached a settlement of their various differences in 2013, part of which included Rio Nuevo using at least $6 million of the money it was receiving from the city to pay for TCC improvements.

“Everyone has worked very diligently to make sure that we work very cohesively together,” Irvin said. “I have been very impressed with the cooperation, the involvement and the sound advice that we’ve gotten from city staff.”

“It’s a big deal we’re doing this together with them (Rio Nuevo)” Kozachik said.

Kozachik said fixing the Tucson Convention Center is a priority because it frees up TIF money that can be used on other projects.

“The fact that we’re doing it in concert with the Rio Nuevo board is a game changer also in terms of our new relationship with them,” Kozachik said. “Now we have these two bodies working together and working in a fiscally responsible way on an important project.”

Irvin praised the city’s support and involvement with project, citing the help of Kozachik, who is the associate director of facilities for the University of Arizona Athletics department and has experience with renovation projects on Arizona Stadium and McKale Center.

The city has funded roughly $17.5 million worth of repairs on the TCC over the past three years, including a new east entrance, escalator and elevator improvements and repairs to carpets and sidewalks, according to Lane Mandle, a city public information officer.

In addition to the district’s $6 million, the council voted 6-1 Feb. 4 to provide $760,000 for the project, according to a press release. Of that total, $544,000 is to be used on plumbing and air conditioning repairs and $96,000 for city facility repairs, according to meeting documents. The final $120,000 accounts for an increase in project management from $250,000 to $370,000, according to Mandle.

“That (funding) was key because we’re putting in new seating and during the preconstruction phase, we sent general services through and they did an assessment about the ceiling and found out that there were leaks in some of the pipes,” Kozachik said. “It would have been pretty foolish to install all the seating knowing that at some point all of these pipes would be leaking down on top of them.”

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who voted against the funding, said she is concerned about overhead charges within the general services department, so her vote was “against overhead, not against the renovations.”

“I voted no to make it clear that I support the city manager’s current work with our executive leadership team to reduce management/administrative costs throughout the bureaucracy,” Uhlich said via email.

Regardless, she said it is important for the council to back the construction project, because “the renovations will help us retain events and add new ones over time.”

The Tucson Convention Center has hosted 90 events so far in 2014, including concerts and the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, as well as serving as the home arena for the Arizona Wildcats hockey team, according to its event calendar.

The hockey team, known as the Arizona IceCats until 2011, has played its home games at the 6,400-seat arena since the 1980-1981 season. Head coach Sean Hogan said that while the old building had character, “upgrades always help the building draw more people to events.”

“I think it will provide an even greater game day experience for Wildcat hockey fans, and gives Tucsonans another reason to come downtown and check out all the great things that are happening,” Hogan said. “It should make it a lot of fun for our hockey team to play in front of even larger crowds than we do now.”

Additional renovations are expected in the future, according to Kozachik. The facilities need list for the property is roughly $40 million, he said.

“This is not the end of it and it can’t be the end of it,” he said. “You need to make sure that when the fans come in, they’re having a pleasant experience whether you’re winning or losing on the floor.”

Both Kozachik and Uhlich said they believe that any additional changes need to be done in a realistic way based off the Tucson market.

“Let’s recognize the market that we are and be the best that we can be and not try and be something that we’re not,” Kozachik said.

Uhlich said the city needs “to become more clear about the market we’re aiming to tap with the TCC,” as “that will shape the TCC for the future.”

The city is currently reviewing bids for a private manager of the center that will be responsible for marketing the facility and booking shows, events and conventions.

Kozachik said the next step should be to create a fund that that supports the facility and maintenance upgrades. The Tucson Convention Center Facility Fund, which takes a surcharge from each ticket sold at the venue, is used for fund operations instead of construction costs, he said. Making this change would enable the city to not have to pull money for construction out of its general fund.

The building is owned by Rio Nuevo and leased to the city. As part of the lease agreement, the city is responsible for handling all maintenance on the 43-year-old building, Kozachik said.

Regardless of future renovations, Kozachik believes the current project is helping the city reach its goal of creating more culture downtown.

“I think this is a great step in letting the fans know that downtown renovation is continuing and it’s not just about the bars and student housing,” he said.