RBC Center's life could extend until 2034

Staff WriterJanuary 31, 2007 

— While major-league teams across the United States have left suburban arenas for new digs downtown, the Carolina Hurricanes could stay put through 2034.

The Centennial Authority, the public agency that owns the RBC Center, has drafted plans for a $60 million retrofitting in 2019 that would keep the arena open for another 15 years.

The plans haven't been approved, but they indicate that the authority's governing board won't follow the lead of Charlotte and other cities that have built arenas closer to the city centers. Instead, they plan to ask for millions of dollars over the next two decades to make renovations.

Critics have long said that the arena, which is west of the Interstate 440 Beltline in a lightly developed area of Raleigh, is not close enough to hotels, restaurants and other nightlife that would encourage more spending from ticket-holders. Last year, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament left Raleigh for Charlotte, in part because its venue was closer to a downtown.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to revitalize Raleigh's once moribund downtown, city and county leaders said they are happy to stick with the current arena and not build a new one soon.

Mayor Charles Meeker, who as a City Council member in the 1990s argued for a downtown arena, said the authority should definitely consider a more central location when it builds the next one -- in the 2030s.

"I think we have another 20 or 25 years at the RBC Center," he said.

The Centennial Authority is also renegotiating contracts with N.C. State, which holds basketball games at the arena, and Gale Force, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team. Those contracts could include more money for renovations.

The authority has not yet publicly released any paperwork and has discussed the negotiations during closed meetings. But The News & Observer obtained a copy of a draft plan given to the city of Raleigh.

The draft and an accompanying letter address the future of the arena's public financing.

It proposes asking Raleigh and Wake County for $1.5 million more each year to make renovations and extending the $5.2 million annual payments for construction debt beyond 2019, when they are slated to end.

The money comes from special taxes on hotels and restaurants. Those taxes also have been used to build the convention center and a minor-league baseball stadium in Zebulon, among other projects.

Bill Mullins, chairman of the Centennial Authority, said that the board has not ruled out a new arena, but it simply wants to make sure that all the hotel and meals tax isn't spent on other projects first. "You want to reserve some money for an arena, wherever it may be," he said.

The agreement that provided for the construction of the arena made no provision for retrofitting the arena, begging the question of whether it would be replaced at some point.

By contrast, the convention center plans include $100 million for major renovations after the first 10 years. The city and county said they wanted to make sure the new convention center lasts for decades.

The RBC Center, which opened in October 1999, cost $155 million, including donations from the state, N.C. State University and bonds financed by the city and county hotel and meals tax.

Steve Waters, a tax consultant hired by the Centennial Authority, said the additional tax money would let the agency borrow about $60 million in 2019 -- enough for major renovations or an expansion.

"It isn't small, but it's not nearly the cost of rebuilding an arena," he said.

Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate agent who lobbied for the arena to be downtown, said she thinks it's smart to keep the center up-to-date, but she hopes that leaders don't rule out a new venue in the city center in the next 15 years.

"I think we should definitely keep our options open," she said.

Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith can be reached at 836-4944 or rbeckwit@newsobserver.com.

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