Monroe mayor calls for new arena

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News,Business,Louisiana

MONROE, La. (AP) — Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo dropped two big surprises during the state of the city address Thursday: his plans to build a new arena, and that he is a distant cousin of entertainer Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson's voice rang out through the Monroe Civic Center arena for the national anthem. Mayo said that's likely the only time her voice would heard in the facility, unless he can pull some family strings.

A study that began last year reached the same conclusion. Where once the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley visited the city, now Monroe's 7,500-seat arena is too small and too old to attract premier performers.

The study, prepared by city consultant M3A Architecture PLLC of Jackson, Miss., says Monroe has the ability to support a 9,000-to-10,000-seat arena, which could serve as a stimulus for more growth in the city. The study, which cost the city $95,000, showed a facility that could host the high-profile entertainers as well as major sporting events, like Mayo and other city developers envision.

"Our experience tells us that for the best return on its investment in this instance, Monroe may wish to consider the new arena as an anchor to, and as part of, a larger vibrant, lively new cultural, recreational, entertainment, and retail destination centered around a memorable, enduring, attractive, pedestrian-friendly outdoor place," the study says.

The study says the demographics and market conditions of the city and the Monroe Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes much of northeastern Louisiana, suggest favorable conditions for the project.

Monroe is easily accessible to travelers. It has its own airport and is within reasonable distances of several others. The city also lies on both Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 165, which connects to Interstate 49 in Alexandria.

Monroe's demographics show an unemployment rate that has returned to pre-recession numbers and still falls below the national average.

It's also younger than the national average and can draw crowds from young audiences from the three nearby universities of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Louisiana Tech and Grambling State, which the study said would attract more attendees to events.

Mayo said the study's findings are only the first step. Now that it's been determined the region can support a facility, the next steps are to discuss whether the city's leaders believe Monroe should move forward with a plan and to work on funding.

The study says the project would cost nearly $84 million. If the city decides to build, the location of the new arena could fall in a number of different locations.

Leaders of different economic districts in the city are for building the arena — but in their specific districts.

"Are we excited? You bet we are," said Larry Bratton, chairman of the Downtown Economic Development District board.

The study's most favorable locations all fell within the downtown area. Bratton shares the study's top choice of building the arena near Walnut and Olive streets.

That location would not be as accessible to I-20, but the study said it would be highly visible and identifiable from the Ouachita River.

Bratton likes the location because he, like the study, sees it as a town square. He pictures an arena that anchors a new area of hotels, restaurants and nightlife that can help revitalize the area.

Bratton said the arena also ties together ongoing projects, like a $3 million capital outlay project for a river walk from the Warehouse No. 1 restaurant down to the railroad tracks. Eventually, Bratton would like to see a convention center and hotel on the river's edge.

"We think it will be one of the best catalysts for businesses in that area," Bratton said, adding it will be a unique landmark for the city.

Other sites in the downtown area include demolishing the current arena and building a new complex in its place, or demolishing City Hall and the police station and building it there. Both have existing access to the interstate but carry additional costs of demolitions and relocating city offices.

I-20 Economic Development District board President Otis Chisley thinks the arena should be built in the I-20 corridor.

Some of the study's suggested sites places the arena by the racetrack, where it has access to a frontage road. Two potential locations put it on Kansas Lane, which is adjacent to the I-20 district and close to the airport.

Chisley said building the arena in the I-20 district would spark additional growth of new businesses in the corridor. He said it's an ideal location because of easy access for travelers.

"If the city is going to invest in a new arena, it needs to be a location you can get to easily," Chisley said. "If you're going to be the hub of Northeast Louisiana, you should do something to attract events."

Chisley said while he couldn't speak for all of the board, an added bonus of building in the corridor could be the I-20 district contributing funds to help offset costs. He said it would be a practical thing to do because it would stimulate growth in the district.

Other site suggestions in the study placed the arena where the old State Farm building is, which is accessible from U.S. 165 and I-20.

Yet another suggestion placed the arena on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Monroe in the sports complex near Malone Stadium.

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Information from: The News-Star, http://www.thenewsstar.com

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