It has been 20 years since the doors opened on the Entertainment and Sports Arena and the public invited in for a first look.
The Carolina Hurricanes had big plans for Oct. 29, 1999 and the game against the New Jersey Devils, the first in the Canes’ new $158 million home. But pregame traffic was a mess. Even team owner Peter Karmanos hopped out of a limo and was in the parking lots that night, trying to help out. It was exhilarating but nerve-racking.
“It’s like moving into a new house and inviting 18,000 over for dinner,” Dean Jordan, then the team president, said at the time.
Amid the chaos of opening night, a game was played and the Devils won 4-2. There were, in fact, 18,730 fans at the game and many were impressed by the shimmering new arena with its large lower bowl, wide corridors and snazzy terrazzo floors.
Flash forward two decades and the multi-purpose arena has aged well, thank you.
It has gone through name changes, from the ESA to RBC Center to PNC Arena as the naming rights were sold but has kept up with the times with such enhancements as an ultra-large scoreboard, 3D projection system and theater lighting. It has hosted Stanley Cup finals and the NHL All-Star game, N.C. State men’s basketball and NCAA tournaments. And concerts, the circus, rodeos and monster trucks.
The Metallica concert in January set a venue record with a crowd of 20,052. The Canes also set a record during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs with 19,495 fans for a New York Islanders game on May 3.
“It has done so much for this city,” said Steve Stroud, a member and former chairman of the Centennial Authority, the arena landlord. “I personally think the building is why national TV folks refer to us as ‘Raleigh’ instead of ‘Raleigh, North Carolina.’ It has helped raise the identity of this city. Everyone knows where Raleigh is.
“At one time Reynolds Coliseum provided entertainment opportunities but PNC Arena has filled a tremendous void in this region. I think it has done everything the authority told the various government entities it would do.”
The Wolfpack, after 50 years of men’s basketball in Reynolds Coliseum on the NCSU campus, played its first game in the new arena against Georgia on Nov. 19, 1999. Pack guard Archie Miller, now the head coach at Indiana, knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minute to seal a 67-63 victory.
On the night the arena officially opened, before the Canes’ game, former NCSU chancellor Marye Anne Fox had walked in and quickly observed, “There’s not enough N.C. State in here.” The relationship between the Hurricanes and Wolfpack, while strained at times by conflicts on scheduling dates or disagreement over the color of the seats, has been a peaceful co-existence for the most part.
“I’m biased but I really believe this, we’ve got the best arena in the country,” Wolfpack basketball coach Kevin Keatts said.
The Pack has its NCAA and ACC championship banners and honored jerseys displayed in the rafters — and No. 44, once worn by the incomparable David Thompson, N.C. State’s only retired jersey. The Canes have retired three jerseys — for Ron Francis, Glen Wesley and Rod Brind’Amour — and also have their banners on display.
One says “Stanley Cup Champions.”
Why not a downtown arena?
Newcomers to the area, and there are many in the Triangle, often ask the same question: why wasn’t the arena built downtown?
The short answer: city leaders studied a downtown site in the 1980s and did not find it practical.
Another question: why aren’t there more sports bars, restaurants and hotels in the immediate PNC Arena area?
Answer: A lot of the land surrounding PNC Arena is controlled and owned by the state.
“We hoped more of the property developed by state government would have been released to the private sector but that hasn’t happened as much as we hoped,” authority member Bill Mullins said.
Damon’s Grill, a restaurant and sports bar, opened in 2004 on Trinity Road near the Edwards Mill Road intersection. Financial woes caused it to close but it soon reopened under new ownership as The Backyard Bistro and has become a staple in the area.
A small hotel, the Comfort Suites, was built behind the restaurant. It has since been converted into a Four Points by Sheraton property.
It has been a slow go. There was the “Great Recession” and economic downturn from 2007 to 2009, when much commercial development ground to a halt.
The Wade Office Park off Edwards Mill Road did open in 2008 and the mixed-use development has burgeoned in recent years, with offices, homes and apartments. A few restaurants, including Honest Abe’s Kitchen & Bar, have opened. It was announced last week that a Hilton Garden Inn hotel would be built in Wade Park, adding more hotel rooms.
“At one time there weren’t many rooftops in that area,” authority member Brent Barringer said. “Now there are a lot of rooftops and a million square feet of rental and office space.”
A year ago, some privately owned land was sold on Trinity Road across from the Fairgrounds that was used for parking lots for Wolfpack football games and was a popular tailgating spot. The Station, off-campus housing for NCSU students, opened.
“The development around the arena hasn’t been as robust as people thought,” said Harvey Schmitt, former president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. “Part of that is who owns the land. I never had high expectations for the development scenario.
“All things considered, the location offers a lot of benefits, not as many as you’d get out of a downtown site but it’s a good site. ... The building through the years became a destination facility for a lot of people, not just in the city but the region, and provided a lot of memories.”
Valvano departure stalled arena effort
Jim Valvano once joked he had a nickname picked out for a new arena: “Jim’s Gym.” Valvano, while coaching at N.C. State in the 1980s, stressed the need for a new state-of-the-art arena to match the one that would open at North Carolina in 1986 -- the Dean E. Smith Center, named for the Tar Heels coach.
Avery Upchurch, then the Raleigh mayor, commissioned a study in 1984 and appointed a “Committee of ‘85” chaired by Stroud to look over the options. The arena was to be part of a downtown revitalization effort that also would include a convention center and performing arts center. The estimated cost of the arena was between $60 million and $65 million, with the City of Raleigh to pay $32 million.
“We tried to build it downtown but the politics on the (Raleigh) City Council changed and the attitude toward the arena changed,” Stroud said. “They no longer wanted to be involved in it, really didn’t want it downtown.”
There would be no bond referendum on the downtown project for voters, as Upchurch had wanted. One of the concerns of the council was that a site adjacent to Carter-Finley Stadium was being proposed for a 23,000-seat N.C. State basketball arena that would be the Pack’s place.
Then it all fell apart.
Valvano, who coached the Pack to a national championship in 1983, had his program on equal footing with UNC and Duke. But he would leave N.C. State in 1990 amid NCAA and UNC system investigations into the basketball program and allegations of academic improprieties.
Wolfpack donors, many soured by Valvano’s forced departure, were no longer interested in putting up the money for a new arena. As Charlie Bryant, then the Wolfpack Club’s executive director put it, “It was wilting on the vine.”
There was a groundbreaking ceremony in the fall of 1993 and the lower bowl area carved out. And then it became, literally, a big hole in the ground, surrounded by paved parking lots used only for N.C. State football games.
It would stay that way for a few years until an unexpected turn -- the pursuit of a National Hockey League team.
The Whalers become the Hurricanes
Harvey Schmitt initially thought the best thing for a new arena would be an American Hockey League team. The Raleigh chamber president attended the 1996 AHL All-Star game in Hershey, Pa., believing an AHL franchise in Raleigh would be the way to secure the arena funding.
“We needed to convince people we would have enough active nights in an arena and not need just N.C. State to sustain it,” Schmitt said.
But the focus soon changed. The NHL was looking to add expansion franchises and Raleigh soon was in the mix.
The Raleigh chamber paid for an economic study, which said the economic impact would be more than $100 million a year for Wake County. An ownership group headed by Felix Sabates of Charlotte, a chatty, wealthy NASCAR team owner, paid to enter an expansion bid in the fall of 1996 and then made the formal expansion presentation to the NHL executive committee in New York early in 1997.
The NHL was definitely interested. The Triangle had the largest TV market in the nation without a major-league team. The biggest drawback was a lack of an arena.
Haggling over the size and funding eventually forced Sabates’ group to withdraw their expansion bid but someone else was interested: Peter Karmanos. The owner of the Hartford Whalers, who had his own arena frustration issues in Connecticut, was looking to move his franchise. He also sat in on the expansion presentations, liked what he heard about Raleigh and soon was in discussions with Stroud and other authority members.
The Whalers moved in 1997, becoming the Carolina Hurricanes. The money to build the arena was split among the City of Raleigh, Wake County, the state, the Hurricanes and N.C. State.
Construction finally began July 1, 1997, and costs continued to escalate. A redesign of the plans needed to alter the foundation added another $26 million — the “$26 million oops,” one former authority member called it — and made it a $158 million project.
“We were supposed to spend $12 million to $15 million to upgrade it to NHL standards,” Karmanos said of the Hurricanes’ commitment. “It turned out to be $40 million.”
A lease was signed — and later extended through 2024. The Hurricanes were to operate the arena under the auspices of the authority, which is responsible for most of the upgrades and maintenance. N.C. State was to have scheduling-date priorities.
The Canes played their first two seasons at the Greensboro Coliseum while the hole was filled and the arena went up. The date was set for the opening but the certificate of occupancy permit from city inspectors was not issued until 48 hours before the Oct. 29, 1999 opening.
“There was no opportunity for a soft opening,” arena general manager Davin Olsen said. “We basically got thrown to the wolves in our first event.”
Olsen, the first person to skate on the ice at the arena, spent 70 straight hours in the building in final preparations. Any wonder he slipped out into a dark parking lot and did the “Funky Chicken,” a dance taught to him by his mother, when the occupancy certificate was issued?
And then the arena opened. Parking was $7, 18-ounce beers sold for $4.50 and the average price for Canes tickets was $40.
And then the years began to pass. Quickly.
Arena built to stand the test of time
It made it 20 years. Could there be another 20?
Other arenas have come and gone — the Charlotte Coliseum, once home to the NBA Hornets, opened in 1988 and was razed in 2007.
“They didn’t have the right bones,” Stroud said. “They didn’t put in the suites and upgrades that people were demanding. We’ve got the right bones. With proper upgrades it could easily be good for another 25 to 30 years.”
Major renovations to PNC Arena had been planned when Karmanos sold his majority interest in the Hurricanes to Dallas billionaire Tom Dundon in January 2018. The authority sought those upgrades while meeting some of Dundon’s requests, such as the new scoreboard in the arena and 3D projection system.
“They’ve done a beautiful job, I think, keeping this building fresh and updated,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday. “It doesn’t feel old at all compared to some some buildings I’ve been into that are 20 years old and you can definitely tell.”
The money again would come from the city and county, funded by the hospitality industry’s hotel/motel and prepared-food tax. Upon final approval, the Centennial Authority will receive $9 million a year for 25 years, executive director Jeff Merritt said.
“Enhancing the fan experience is much more than a slogan,” the authority’s Barringer said. “It’s a reality that you have to do it and it’s a big commitment.”
The authority, in its request for more than $200 million, had a strong argument: the arena has had a $4 billion economic impact for Wake County in the past 20 years. In 2018, the estimated economic impact was $262 million from the arena.
The authority’s report was prepared by John Connaughton, a UNC Charlotte economist. It was Connaughton who also handled the report done in 1996 and paid for by the Raleigh chamber, his economic forecast proving to be accurate.
On Tuesday, the arena will turn 20 as the Hurricanes host the Calgary Flames. N.C. State, which won an exhibition game Sunday against Mount Olive, will host Georgia Tech in the 2019-20 season opener on Nov. 5 at PNC Arena. NCSU’s locker room has undergone renovations through the years and the Pack has a new basketball floor this season.
“It turned out to be more than what my original vision was,” said Wendell Murphy, a major N.C. State donor, former trustee chairman and still an authority member. “I thought we were going to build N.C. State a basketball arena and it wound up being triple that in terms of the total cost.
“But I think it has been great for Wake County and all of Eastern North Carolina. All in all, a wonderful project.”