City Of Savannah To Build New Arena

11 January 2018

The city of Savannah, Ga., has approved a $2.8 million contract for Chicago-based project management firm Jones Lang LaSalle to oversee the process of designing and constructing a new 9,000-seat arena to replace 43-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. Arena.

Under the plan, Martin Luther King Jr. Arena will be repurposed or demolished upon completion of the new arena but will remain open until that time.

That arena shares its property with Johnny Mercer Theatre, whose fate has not been determined. The council allocated $845,000 to maintain the theater until the decision is made on whether it will be dismantled after the new arena is built.

“The current arena was built in 1973 and is very, very old and in need of major repairs,” said Pete Shonka, executive director of arena development for the city of Savannah. “We commissioned Barrett Sports Group to file a report on the best way to proceed and it was determined building a brand new arena was our best option.”

Topics that Barrett Sports Group studied included comparable markets, competitive markets, and fan demographics and income levels.

The new arena site is about one mile from Martin Luther King Jr. Arena and situated west of the city’s historic district on city property. “This area of town is underdeveloped and with a new arena we’d look at some new development around it to spark other economic activity there,” he said.

The new site now houses the city’s Public Works Department, which will move a mile to a new facility that will cost between $20 million and $22 million, according to Shonka. “That building is outdated and the project to move it is already underway,” he said. “It’s good timing for all of this to happen simultaneously.”

The budget of the project is still in flux. A special-purpose local sales tax is providing $120 million, but projections are calling for $140 million to get the job done.

Jones Lang LaSalle will push the project moving forward and “will help the city select a designer, contractor and an arena operator,” according to Heath Hans, project manager of the new arena for the firm.

The current arena is being managed in-house. “We anticipate the larger facility will be a little bit busier than the old arena, and we’ve had difficulty finding people to run the operation,” Shonka said. “We think hiring a venue operating firm is the way to go.”

Hans said that hiring a venue operator as quickly as possible “is critical and essential to the success of the project. It’s not like we’d bring on someone at the end of the project and say, ‘Here’s your building.’ Having the programmer involved in the design of the facility ensures the project will be up to their standards and is something they can schedule, book and fill on a regular basis.”

A discussion on whether to hire a concessionaire or keep the concession program in-house will come once a venue operator is selected.

Discussions started between the city and JLL after an RFP process that started in August. “We’ve been watching this project for two to three years,” Hans said. “As soon as they issued their RFP we responded with a proposal.” After an interview process, JLL was selected.

“All we really know now is that the city wants to build a 144,000-square-foot arena, with roughly 9,000 seats,” Hans said. “Once our contract with the city is signed, we’ll sit down with the city and create a charter, which will refine what shape the project will take.”

Construction should start within a year and the process should take 30-34 months, depending on the design model they choose.

A locker room and a green room are to be incorporated into the design and, when finished, the venue will be a “multipurpose facility with the possibility that we could get a minor league sports tenant to occupy the building,” Shonka said. “Primarily it will be sports tournaments, concerts, corporate and church events and other community events.”

Plans also call for 12-15 luxury suites and 400 club seats. The current facility does not have any premium seating.

Hans confirmed Shonka’s timeline, saying, “We’re starting the 34-month clock the day we sign the contract.”