KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Private investors have come forward with a plan to build an arena in downtown Kalamazoo without using any taxpayer dollars.
“I can’t stress it enough, it’s transformative,” Kalamazoo County Commission chair John Taylor told News 8.
The plan for the arena and events center was revealed at Tuesday’s Kalamazoo County Commission meeting. The 320,000-square-foot facility would include an arena, two basketball courts, an event hall, practice ice and two parking decks.
The arena is a project 20 years in the making.
“I cannot understate how important this is to this community. Back in 2002 I was a 23-year-old county commissioner and I remember these discussions taking place. This has been a 20-some year work in process,” Taylor said during the meeting.
The group behind the project is eyeing four blocks bordered by Kalamazoo Avenue on the north and Water Street on the south, between Westnedge Avenue and Park Street. Much of is now vacant or surface parking, but there are some businesses. Commissioner Jen Strebs said property sales were still in negotiations.
The group says it could support Western Michigan University sports and the Kalamazoo Wings hockey team, saying it could seat 6,500 for sporting events and between 7,000 and 8,000 for concerts.
The proposal, called ‘Catalyst,’ shows the facility could host about 236 events each year, drawing nearly 550,000 people and supporting nearly 700 full- and part-time jobs. It is expected to inject about $54 million into the local economy and make the county more than $1.7 million in sales and lodging taxes.
“The idea of a downtown arena has come up twice before this in my tenure,” Kalamazoo County Commissioner John Gisler said. “The two words on the summary page, at the end of the first line, that is enough to turn me around: ‘privately funded,’ which means it’s not going to be paid for by taxpayers in any way and it’s going to be on the tax rolls — it’s going to pay some taxes when it’s so successful which I now expect it to be.”
“I am also happy with what the developer is committing to for the northside neighborhood in this agreement. I am happy to support this,” Kalamazoo County Commissioner Tami Rey said.
Taylor told News 8 he believes the project would “put Kalamazoo on the map,” and would attract large businesses and other venues.
“This is just a big deal in Kalamazoo County,” Taylor said. “You’ve got close to a $200 million investment that’s going to be privately funded. This has been talked about for a long time, and one of the biggest sticking points was what is the use of taxpayer’s dollars for private venture.”
Part of the proposal would require 40% of concessions space within the center to be operating by minority-run vendors.
A motion to finalize the purchase agreement and parking options passed 9-0.
For years, the county has mulled how to fund a downtown arena and events center. In 2018, the then-director of Southwest Michigan First, the area’s economic development agency, told News 8 that it would be key to revitalize downtown.
WMU COULD PLAY AT FACILITY
The group has had discussions with Western Michigan University about Broncos athletic teams playing at the arena, according to a statement from WMU director of athletics Dan Bartholomae.
“Southwest Michigan First, Catalyst Development and the Events Center Design Working Group have put together an exciting vision and we are fortunate to have WMU Athletics included in the discussion,” he said in a statement. “They are on a path to creating an innovative partnership that would be a tremendous asset for our community and aligns with WMU Athletics’ vison or comprehensive excellence.”
He said the current plan addresses “facility deficiencies” the school has that “inhibit our student athletes experience, hinder our ability to recruit and compete at the highest level, and will provide amenities that fans expect, students deserve and that our community can enjoy.”
“I look forward to next steps, which will include more detailed and collaborative discussion on design. I am excited about this vision because it offers great possibilities and a bright future for our students, athletic department and this community,” Bartholomae concluded.
The school’s head hockey coach, head men’s basketball coach and head women’s basketball coach echoed his excitement in their own statements.
“Hearing the news about an opportunity to have a state-of-the-art facility for Bronco Hockey is a game changing announcement for our program as we seek to remain among the best in the nation,” WMU head hockey coach Pat Ferschweiler, whose team recently made it to the NCAA Frozen Four tournament, said in a statement.
WMU head women’s basketball coach Shane Clipfell also described the arena as a game-changer.
“Our student-athletes are the lifeblood of our program, and to be able to recruit to the best facilities and provide space that appropriately allows us to train and develop them is exciting,” Clipfell said in a statement. “Furthermore, it is energizing to know that they will compete in a first-class arena surrounded by a supportive community.”
“I appreciate everyone’s effort on this project and am energized to be a part of designing one or the best facilities in the country,” WMU head men’s basketball coach DJ Stephens said in a statement. “It will have a huge impact on our program, university and community. I look forward to seeing the new arena filled with Bronco students, alums, and fans as we raise MAC Championship banners.”
News 8’s Luke Stier contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount that could be invested into the project. We regret the error, which has been fixed.