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A small market companion in need, is a small market companion indeed.

Thursday, January 31, 2008
I figure with a whole 2 days off before I work on Saturday, thanks to the wonderful idea of cramming all my classes this semester in to just Tuesdays and Thursdays, that I might as well make the best use of my time and make another post while I have my creative juices flowing. That, and I feel a bit guilty.

I feel guilty because one of the cooler, better bloggers I've read -- ol' Mike W. from Covered in Oil -- asked me in comments a few weeks ago if I could not only speak about the Arena District from my own perspective, but ask readers and fellow CBJ bloggers alike how it's affected Columbus, and how it helped to "revitalize" that area. Of course, being highly unreliable when it comes to getting back to people when I am on my manic hiatuses, I never responded with so much as a peep.

But I definitely wanted to post on that topic. It's an interesting one, to be sure. So without further ado, let's jump right in, shall we?


For all of you who did not see the comment in the post "A New Hope", the question by fellow blogger (and fellow Mike) Mike was put like this:

"Michael, you're a good man with a good blog: may I ask you and your readers a question about the Arena District in Columbus?

It's being used as a model for building a new arena in downtown Edmonton. There's lots of debate over an arena's ability to "revitalize." Did the area in Columbus become more vibrant after the arena was built, or is the growth attributed to other things?"

Before I get in to the history of the Arena District, let's first step back and take a look at some of the similarities between Columbus and Edmonton, as small sports markets (pertaining to professional leagues; Buckeyes boosters need not comment), as well as some differences in the markets themselves.

By census standards, Edmonton and Columbus are almost exactly the same size in terms of population. Edmonton, as of 2006, boasts 730,000 or so people living there, while Columbus has 733,000 or so. That's no more than, like, an extra dorm or two at The Ohio State University, really.

So in terms of size of each city, they're actually pretty similar. The big difference, though, is that the Oilers are a storied franchise, who have existed for decades, and been an integral part of Edmonton life since the early 70s. The Blue Jackets are no more than 7 years old by season standards, and only hitting double-digits in age if you factor in the time when the franchise was awarded to Columbus by the National Hockey League.

I'll get in to how that can be a big deal later on, but for now, let's move on to the Arena District itself.

Having lived in Columbus only since July or August of 2005, I practically have no direct experience with the building of the Arena District, Nationwide Arena, and how it first affected the city of Columbus when it occurred. Sure, I've heard plenty of stories, but that's all I can say. Undeterred, while I was at a recent Blue Jackets' game, I was browsing through the new Blue Jackets' 2007-08 season yearbook (now just $10 at your local FSN Ohio Blueline! *Tucks away a wad of advertising cash.*), and near the end, it spoke about the Arena District, and how everything came to happen not only in terms of being awarded a franchise, but also turning what was once a run-down penitentiary into not just a sports venue and top arena in North America (going by ESPN polls and standards, and that "#1 IN FAN EXPERIENCE" banner they hung for so long in the arena itself), but a vibrant community with upscale apartments, restaurants, clubs, and the like.

I'm going to scribe this from the yearbook by verbatim, so be sure to keep in mind that much of this is written rather glowingly, as is to be expected with a bias. With that said, here's what the yearbook writes:


The arrival of the Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena has changed the Columbus landscape dramatically over the past 10 years.
By Craig Merz

Because Columbus civic, community, and business leaders refused to take no for an answer, their vision of a rundown penitentiary site as an entertainment mecca is a thriving reality 10 years later. Of course, a decade ago no one was calling the 95 acres bounded by the railroad tracks just north of Maple Street, High Street, and Spring Street and Neil Avenue the Arena District -- that would come later -- but there is no doubt that events 10 years ago changed the face of Columbus forever.

It all started with a vision ... that of Worthington Industries founder John H. McConnell to bring a major league sports team to the city that had given him so much. He believed Ohio's largest city and state capital deserved to have a major league team to call its own and knew the impact it would have on the community would be felt for years to come. The process began in November 1996 when he led a local ownership group that submitted an application to the National Hockey League for an expansion franchise for the city.

"A lot of people assume that you get into something like this to make a lot of money," McConnell said at the time. "That's not why I am doing it. I'm trying to pay back. Columbus has been very good to me."

If Columbus was going to get a new team it would need a place to play. Several months later an announcement was made that Nationwide Insurance (90 percent of cost) of cost and The Dispatch Printing Co. (10 percent) would privately finance a downtown arena. As a result on June 25, 1997, the NHL announced the awarding of an expansion franchise to the city of Columbus.

In 2007, the Columbus Blue Jackets are playing in their seventh NHL season and Nationwide Arena is the crown jewel of an urban revival that has become the envy of cities across America.

The Arena District offers 1.2 million square feet of office space and 300,000 square feet for retail, restaurant, and entertainment venues. There are dozens of restaurants within walking distance of Nationwide Arena as well as luxury hotels with more than 1,000 rooms; more than a million square feet of event space, the Arena Grand Theatre, the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion concert venue, coffee shops and casual and formal dining spots. Also, the Blue Jackets were the first team in the NHL to attach a practice facility to their arena. What a concept.

"I don't know why others don't do it," veteran Blue Jackets forward Sergei Fedorov said. "It's a fantastic opportunity to be in the same building. You don't have to worry about moving stuff around. You have a chance to keep your focus. Everybody would love to have that opportunity."

The Dispatch Ice Haus is just one of many forward thinking ideas when discussing the Arena District.

"What really matters isn't (just) the arena, but the Arena District," Tim Curry, co-author of High Stakes: Big Time Sport and Downtown Redevelopment, told the Columbus Dispatch. "Many stadiums and arenas tend to be islands in run-down neighborhoods. Our Arena District is well-known throughout the country."

There's no question the future looks bright with more condos and offices on the horizon not to mention the new home for the AAA baseball's Columbus Clippers. However, before moving ahead, it's important to look back at how Nationwide Arena and the Arena District came to fruition.

The story begins on May 7, 1997. It was a Wednesday, a gloomy one at that for those who dreams of seeing an NHL expansion team in Columbus. The previous day voters rejected a sales tax to fund an arena and soccer stadium on the 23-acre site of the old Ohio Penitentiary. It was the fifth ballot rejection for a sports venue in the past 20 years.

In the wake of the latest defeat, NHL officials told Columbus leaders that if they could somehow come up with a plan for an arena the city still had a shot -- but they had less than a month to get their act together.

At a breakfast meeting on the morning after the vote, Nationwide officials discussed the idea of privately funding an arena.

Then-Nationwide chairman Dimon R. McFerson remembers the light bulb moment when he gazed at his company's skyscraper overlooking the wasteland below that was once the pen site. "I looked out the window and saw an awful lot of land that would sit there forever we didn't do something with it," he would later recall.

Then-Mayor Greg Lashutka, Franklin County officials and business leaders scrambled to get a plan in place. Former Nationwide executive and vice president and chief investment officer Robert Woodward Jr., once said in an interview that those ensuing days were "chaotic... Contrary to popular opinion, there was no Plan B," if the ballot initiative failed.

Fortunately for those involved locally, on May 9 the NHL delayed its recommendations on expansion cities to give Columbus more time.

As plans for a $150 million arena evolved, Nationwide officials concluded that they could do more for the surrounding area and committed nearly $500 million toward developing what would become the Arena District.

"It was something we were doing for the community," Woodward said.

On June 2, just shy of four weeks after the setback at the ballot box, Mayor Lashutka went before City Council with a plan for an arena and site development. It was readily endorsed and a few weeks later the NHL's expansion committee recommended that a group headed by McConnell be awarded a franchise to begin play in the 2000-01 season.

"With this team and the arena, the city will see things it's never seen before," said John P. McConnell, who serves as an Alternate Governor of the Blue Jackets. "It will revitalize Downtown."

Those words proved prophetic and the rest is hockey (and city) history. But there is more to the history of the Arena District. The land in question was known as "Irish Broadway" for some time and in the 1850's it was "Irish Shantyton" for all the Irish who settled in the arena.

Of course, the most famous, or infamous, structure was the Ohio Penitentiary. It opened in 1834 and closed in 1983. At its peak it housed 5,235 prisoners. Among the notorious inmates were boxing promoter Don King, Dr. Sam Sheppard (for whom the TV series and motion pictures "The Fugitive" was based), members of John Dillinger's gang and William Sydney Porter, better known as the writer of O, Henry.

The pen had an eerie side. A total of 315 prisoners were electrocuted there from 1897 until 1963 and a 1930 fire killed 322 inmates in the worst prison fire in U.S. history. Some people insist that Nationwide Arena is haunted by the ghosts of those who dwelled inside the massive stone barristers.

"I've heard about that. There are probably some penitentiary walls around here somewhere," Blue Jackets forward Jason Chimera said. "If it's haunted, hopefully it haunts other teams when they come in here."

The state sold the pen site to Columbus for $1 in 1995, paving the way for the demolition of the buildings and ultimately the rebirth as the Arena District. Groundbreaking for Nationwide Arena was in May 1998, and the first tenants of the Arena District -- Buca di Beppo and Resource Marketing -- opened a year later. The arena itself had its coming out party in September 2000 with a concert by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and the Blue Jackets' first regular season game was October of that year.

Today the Arena District draws more than 2.5 million visitors annually and Nationwide Arena has been host to the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League, numerous concerts, the Ultimate Fighting Championships, NCAA men's basketball first and second round tournament games, conventions, Team USA's World Cup of Hockey 2004 training camp and exhibition games vs. Canada and Russia and the NHL Entry Draft in June 2007. The latter was the type of event with international appeal that community leaders envisioned when they put the plan together for Nationwide Arena in 1997.

While the Arena District was designed with the fans in mind to private pre- and postgame entertainment, it has been a godsend for players such as Chimera and rookie Jared Boll who live (and work) in the district. "My wife and I go to the restaurants frequently," Chimera said. "There's a lot of variety of restaurants and stuff to do in the Short North. It's always active and a fun place to be. I walk about 75 percent of the time to the rink."

Added Boll, "It's great to be this close to everything."

Ahead for the Arena District is more housing, more business, and the sound of "Play Ball!" with the first pitch at the Columbus Clippers' Huntington Park scheduled for April 2009. (Also increasing are the boundaries of the district as the ballpark site is west of Neil Avenue but most consider it part of the Arena District). Other highlights include the opening of the Condominiums at North Bank Park in December 2007 and the first and second round games of the NCAA women's basketball tournament in 2009 at Nationwide Arena.

The Arena District just gets better and better -- take it from a former Red Wings star and world traveler.

"The way it looks now and the outcome, it's very nice," Fedorov said. "I see a lot of people coming Downtown. It's not like Detroit. It's totally different, a brand new town. I think it's comfortable, personally. I like it, my family likes it. It's very, very nice. It's very convenient."

And if the next 10 years are anything like the past decade, the best days truly lie ahead for the Blue Jackets and the very special place they call home.


Yes, I know, the homerism in that article is strong. But there's enough meat on that story to give you the idea that the Arena District has been nothing short of a godsend for Columbus, and especially downtown.

You'll remember near the beginning, I made mention of how one key difference was that the Blue Jackets came with the Arena District, while the Oilers have been around for a long time. The point I want to make here is that part of the Arena District being successful, I think, had in large part to do with a new sports franchise coming to Columbus; and a professional one at that, compared to the minor league Clippers and ... well, the Crew (which depending on if you're in the majority of people in North America (excluding Mexico), consider soccer a second-class sport). There's always something about a new sports franchise that can electrify a community, let alone spark success in an area of a city. It could very well be different for the Oilers, who would simply be relocating to a better venue.

But that's just my opinion, and much like Dennis Miller, I could be wrong.

I'd like to step aside here, and let other Blue Jackets' bloggers and people who live in Columbus to take a shot at giving their opinions on how the Arena District helped Columbus, and what it's been like since it was built, along with Nationwide Arena. So feel free to leave your comments, and have at it.
  • At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've lived in Columbus all my 35 years and can say the arena made a very significant impact on the city. It sparked an entire renewal of the Short North, South Campus and downtown. Before the arena, downtown and what is now the arena district were basically dead, no one ever went there. The short north had a niche, but nothing like it is today.

  • At 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am nearing my 40th birthday, and I have lived in Columbus almost the entire time, and while the Arena District has really revitalized downtown on the northern edge, city officials have neglected the southern half.

    With that, I am holding off on any back-patting. People were saying some of the same things about City Center Mall in the late 80s and early 90s shortly after it opened, and look what has happened to that downtown "jewel."

    As a sports fan who remembers all five of those arena/stadium ballot defeats quite well (who can forget the 80,000-seat retractable roof stadium that would of been called the "New World Center"), the Arena District is a great asset, but let's just hope it stays that way for years to come.


  • At 12:20 PM, Blogger Bethany said…

    Getting a bit worried about ya, I sent you an e-mail...hope you are alright.

  • At 7:31 PM, Anonymous franchise consultants inc said…

    i dissagree with the anonymous comment above. the arena made a so so impact nothing incredible. it just made it noisier and uncomfortable. However it did make it nicer.

    Great post!


    advertising consultants franchise

  • At 8:13 PM, Anonymous thousand oaks office space said…

    i agree with the Chrissy comment above the arena barely made an impact... maybe, but MAYBE at first.. because it was new to the eye i was prettier. but now its just blah, sick of it.


  • At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Franchise Marketing In Mississauga said…

    the two comments above are true the arena was nice at first impressive but after the first month there was nothing 'life chancing' about it.


  • At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Arena District good. Critics bad. You go other city you no like.

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Name: Michael
Home: San Tan Valley, Arizona, United States
About Me: A mid-20s male who feels much too old even before he's 30. Has a degree in Sport Management and after branching out and trying a few other things in the job market, has finally decided to go back to his first love of hockey and hope he can break in with a team, big or small, somehow.
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