By Stefan Snijders
If you went to the University of Nebraska Omaha’s campus five years ago, you’d realize it wasn’t quite complete. Amidst all the buildings, a glaring omission remained: there was no sports arena.
Fast-forward to 2015, and that oversight is on the verge of being corrected. The school will officially open the Baxter Arena for business Oct. 23, when the UNO Maverick hockey team hosts the Air Force
Academy in the kickoff to the future of the school’s winter athletic programs. But the road to the future, while fast-tracked, was not without complications.
The school’s decision to build and operate its own sports and entertainment arena was not taken lightly, said UNO Vice-Chancellor B.J. Reed. Discussions of an arena floated, he said since the early-to-mid-2000s. The university’s move to operation as a fully competitive NCAA Division I school in 2011 hastened that discussion.
In 2013 the school announced the plan for the Baxter, he said. The cost of the arena – more than $81 million – would be enough to raise eyebrows in any community. As the state’s second-largest public university, raising the money to facilitate the building of the arena would take some work.
“There is a whole range of things that happened in the late 2000s and into the early teens that made this project a more viable option for the school,” Reed said, regarding the proposal and eventual construction of the arena.
Using the city’s Century Link Center cost the school too much money, he said, due to the rental agreements and prohibitive pricing for sports events, combined with the challenge of trying to fill an arena that seats more than 17,000 people.
Mike Kemp, assistant athletic director for UNO, said they faced a major difficulty in transportation, even during practice sessions, because of the lack of an on-site facility.
“From the perspective of the hockey team, when we played at the old Civic Center we were out of the building for practice more than we were in it,” Kemp said.
The hockey team logged travel time within their home town because of the shared nature of the arena and lack of their own practice facilities. Kemp said this resulted in some long hours on practice days.
“The kids would have to drive downtown to come and suit up in full gear, except of course skates, then put them on a bus and drive them out to 42nd and Q, or 120th and Maple (Streets), practice, then turn around and drive back downtown to the Civic, get medical treatment or whatever they had to do,” Kemp said. “It would be a five-hour endeavor on a daily basis for an hour to hour and a half practice.”
Indeed, Kemp said one of the major items regularly used against UNO in recruiting players by other schools was the fact the school didn’t even have its own practice facilities. So in the end, the school’s intent to foster more competition and provide a better image for the school was came through the creation of its own arena.
Structural ideas for the arena included a seating capacity closer to what expected capacity for a school the size of UNO could fill. The arena seats approximately 7,800 people, and includes some club seating and box seats. The bowl and tier arrangement, Kemp said, will ensure that lines of sight are not hindered, even when a fan is getting a hot dog at the concession stands.
However, this project means more than having a local facility for sports teams. Both Kemp and Reed said it means better overall marketing for the school itself, and it brings a boost to an already blossoming Aksarben Village. The arena helps create a positive image for the school both nationally, as a Division I program, for its facilities, but also locally. The venue allots that at least one-third of all ice time for the arena will be available for community purposes, according to the university.
With absolute control over the arena, UNO can maintain costs of services at the arena, ensuring it stays competitive enough for the school, but reasonable cost-wise for the public to attend.
The university also will be able to arrange rental usage for other events, further ensuring that the operating costs of athletics are less likely to cause budget concerns for the school. They’ve developed the peripheral amenities for the facility, too.
Kemp said the university has “invested heavily” for WiFi connectivity, enhanced wiring for cell reception, and other facility operations.
“We have a beautiful Jumobtron, too; all this goes into making sure the user experience at the Baxter is a great one,” Kemp said.
He noted seating price options for games will not be significantly increased, meaning that those who purchased hockey seats at the old arenas will not have to worry about re-investment when they purchase for games at the new facility.
And the cost? Vice-Chancellor Reed says that of the scheduled $81 million, roughly half came through private contributions. The rest will be recouped through event hosting and general operations for events. The projections, which Reed said he wasn’t sure of specifically, were run by several groups and committees for analysis on how financially sound the plan for investment remained for the school.
“The community leaders themselves, the university, and the Heritage Foundation all ran the numbers to say, does this make sense, are these revenue estimates conservative?” Reed said. “The question was, ‘can we generate the kind of revenue you’re talking about?’ And there were enough yeses to say we can make this work.”
The conservative estimates of cost recovery was based on expectations of no more than four major events held per year. At that rate, the school expects the turnaround on recouping cost to last no more than 10 years. However, the potential of the new arena combined with its home in a centrally located, booming neighborhood creates opportunities for the arena’s operations to allow further events and an accelerated cost recovery.
Flash-forward again to the present, and the arena is just two weeks away from its inaugural opening. The official public opening is a game night for the Maverick hockey team. Mike Kemp looks forward to the event. The excitement is palpable in his campus office.
“I think it will replicate the opening night of our hockey program in 1997,” Kemp said. “That was an absolute gala, and I think this will be much the same.”