The cities of Pensacola and Biloxi both have newer, more thriving arenas, despite having a smaller population base to draw from than Mobile.
For Biloxi, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum was renovated after Hurricane Katrina with the help of $27 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds and insurance, General Manager Matt McConnell said.
“We completely redid it, with 8,000 new seats and additional work,” McConnell said. “We replaced the roof.”
In total, the Mississippi center can now hold up to 11,000 seats.
The arena opened in 1979 and is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), unlike the Mobile Civic Center. The Mississippi arena will also benefit from Restore Act funding to install new ceiling rigging by the spring of 2020, which can hold up to 140,000 pounds, McConnell said. One of the issues with Mobile’s arena hosting concerts is its ceiling rigging maxes out at 100,000 pounds, which is too little for many modern shows.
About the rigging issues, McConnell said it’s possible to bypass the rigging for bigger concerts and shows, but the installation and take-down of equipment in that scenario is not appealing to a national touring act.
“They couldn’t set it up and pull it down in one day,” he said.
The nearby convention center is being expanded with the help of a $63 million bond issue, which is expected to be paid for through an increase in lodging taxes, McConnell said.
The Pensacola Bay Center opened in January 1985 and has 10,000 seats, General Manager Cyndee Pennington said. The Escambia, County-owned arena is supported by $1.5 million in public money, which comes from taxes on the rental of hotels and condominiums, she said. Out of the $1.5 million, $200,000 is used for capital expenses. Despite the public investment, Pennington admitted the center has a list of about $20 million in improvements management would like to see.
Unlike Mobile, which at one point had the Mystics, and Biloxi, which has had several different teams, Pensacola hosts the Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League at the SMG-managed Bay Center. Pennington said the team draws between 2,500 and 2,800 fans per contest.
The center, including its meeting rooms, hosts around 250 events per year, Pennington said.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has said the city is losing close to $2 million per year on Mobile’s Civic Center and would have to pay to get the arena in ADA compliance before any renovations could be finished.
Costs for a renovated Civic Center have been estimated at about $50 million. The Cordish Companies, which has presented a plan to redevelop the 22 acres on which the Civic Center sits, has a history of building open-air event venues in mid-sized and major cities alike.
It’s unclear now if the proposal Cordish brings to the city will include an indoor event center or not. It initially appeared the company was planning to introduce its Live! concept to the Port City, but in recent weeks Stimpson’s administration has seemed open to leaving an indoor event center on site.
Council Vice President Levon Manzie, who represents the downtown area where the Civic Center is located, said he is going to support “what makes sense.”
“As a mid-sized city, we’ve got to have certain amenities,” he said. “I’m open to hearing a final proposal.”
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