KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — After years of speculation, a new arena appears close to reality for downtown Kalamazoo.
The 320,000-square foot facility is expected to host more than 230 events a year and create 700 jobs. According to Southwest Michigan First, it is expected to pump $57 million annually into the local economy.
Jonas Peterson, who serves as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, said a recent feasibility study is what led to a centralized focus on exactly where, what and how such a facility would serve the public.
“We have a high level of unmet demand for local events and that we should build an even bigger project, including flat floor space for conventions, for instance,” Peterson explained. “We do believe now is the time for action. In order to get to that point, we did a lot of homework along the way and a lot of coalition building.”
However, it was generosity through the aforementioned coalition building that led to the announcement being a matter of when, not if. The $300 million project will be privately funded, not costing a penny to local taxpayers.
“We certainly have some cost models built out. We know that will change over time,” Peterson said. “It’s an incredibly big deal. And I can’t emphasize enough — it’s privately funded along the way.”
The space south of Kalamazoo Avenue between Park Street and North Westnedge Avenue was the first choice. Once it’s finished, the arena and events center will replace the construction staging area for the future judicial center, a couple of parking lots, and a few dilapidated buildings in the northwest section of downtown Kalamazoo. But its general area of interest was always within city limits.
“Projects of this size and scope … are way more successful when there’s close proximity to hotels, restaurants and retail. That means downtown,” Peterson explained. “So when you have a location like that, you can increase economic impact and you can increase the visitor’s experience.”
As of Wednesday, Peterson said there’s no finalized timeline yet on when the project will be finished, but it is full steam ahead with land assembly all finished.
“This is going to be a facility that is rocking and brings a ton of energy to downtown,” he added. “It’s a massive project. It’s a game changer.”
The arena is expected to be home to the Kalamazoo Wings and Western Michigan’s basketball and hockey teams. Bronco basketball currently plays at Read Fieldhouse, where WMU Athletics Director Dan Bartholomae says a total of nine varsity sports practice and compete (excluding recreational and intramural programs).
“I might have track running around the exterior indoor track while I got basketball working out,” Bartholomae explained. “I may have the volleyball nets up in the morning, and then of course we’ve got to turn it around for basketball. These students have classes as well, so we have to be considerate of their schedules.”
Without a practice gym, a student manager for one of WMU’s basketball teams told News 8 they sometimes have to use facilities at Kalamazoo College. Bartholomae said this logistical nightmare adds to a collective toll on the student athletes, including their national title-contending hockey team.
“I can tell you that right now, the experience they’re having in these facilities is among the worst in our conferences,” Bartholomae said. “We’ve got to solve that.”
Facilities-related limitations are also prominent at Lawson Ice Arena. Brendan Kuiper, co-president of the hockey student section Lawson Lunatics, said the hockey team can’t be under the same roof to get a full conditioning session in.
“(They) come here for practice in the morning … drop their stuff off, then go to Read to lift weights, then come back,” Kuiper explained. “I think that’s just mind boggling.”
Kuiper, a senior, also helps event staff for other gamedays, which are challenging in itself.
“Parking is a nightmare,” Kuiper explained. “You have to have police presence and it’s a long day. It’s very crowded. Teams don’t have the space because you need to have away team locker rooms, and those aren’t the greatest here.”
With the facility featuring two basketball courts and practice ice in addition to the main space, both welcome the arena’s announcement.
“By doing that, that opens up individualized spaces for other programs — like the volleyballs, like the gymnastics — to have a better experience in university arena,” Bartholomae said.
“Change is a good thing,” Kuiper added. “You do lose Lawson, but I don’t think you lose the students fully. So I think you can still have a good atmosphere in that new building. And I just thought for basketball, I think it’s a great idea.”
While initial renderings are out, the arena’s design is not final, as meetings between partners and architects are set to continue. Bartholomae plans to bring representatives from the Lawson Lunatics to those meetings to discuss and help design a facility tailored to them.
“We want their experience to be at the forefront as we’re thinking about what this place looks place looks like,” Bartholomae explained. “We’re going to create spaces specific to them so that they have an even better experience than they have at Lawson. Frankly, it’s going to be an experience they’re going to help create. I’m pumped about it. I can’t wait.”
But aside from calling it home, he also wants the arena to also be a hosting opportunity for WMU and Kalamazoo.
“We can’t right now due to the facility situation. This arena gives us the opportunity to do that,” Bartholomae said. “It’s not just hockey. We’ll be able to host NCAA basketball events, NCAA gymnastics events, NCAA volleyball events, NCAA wrestling events. … You name it, we want to be a hub for hosting. Because big-time schools host big-time events, and this is a big-time school.”
In the meantime, Bartholomae reassured the downtown arena will not substitute any existing renovation projects, especially those with “immediate needs,” which include the locker room for the women’s basketball team.
Bartholomae says the future of Lawson Ice Arena is uncertain, since both the university and athletics department own different parts of the facility. However, Read Fieldhouse will continue to be used by other varsity sports once the downtown arena is complete.