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The Virginia Beach metropolitan area is one of the largest in the country without a major professional sports team, and numerous attempts to lure one here have repeatedly left sports fans in the area disappointed.
The area’s most recent flirtation with the NBA was rebuffed just last year after a deal to get the Sacramento Kings to relocate fell apart when plans to build them an arena and pay for their moving expenses didn’t come to fruition, among other reasons.
But rather than be jaded, hope springs eternal in Virginia’s largest city that one day an NBA or NHL team will call the region home.
With no promise a pro sports franchise will ever move to the beach, city leaders are still considering building an 18,000 seat arena that they say could eventually help land a pro team and provide a much needed economic boost at the oceanfront during the slow winter tourism season.
The Hampton Roads region of Virginia has about 1.7 million people with no natural allegiance to any one basketball or hockey team that boosters say makes it an attractive market for an expansion franchise or relocation. Residents here have long thirsted for a pro sports team and the civic ego boost that comes along with it in a region that has long struggled to garner the national recognition many people here feel it deserves. Past attempts to bring baseball, hockey and basketball franchises to the area have always come up short, in part, because there wasn’t already a facility that could host a team.
Virginia Beach most recently tried to woo the Sacramento Kings away from California last year. If the Kings had decided to move, they would have had to bounce around between much smaller arenas in Norfolk, Hampton, Richmond and Charlottesville while an 18,500 seat arena was built near the oceanfront.
“The odds are much better of getting a professional sports team if the facility’s already built. We learned that quite easily through our last opportunity that we didn’t succeed in,” said Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who supports building an arena even without a team.
Having an arena ready and waiting is the model used successfully by New Orleans and Oklahoma City, which both have NBA teams. Kansas City also has built an arena capable of hosting an NBA or NHL team, but so far it is dependent on other events to fill it schedule. City officials say that an arena in Virginia Beach could thrive even without a pro sports team as its primary tenant because there isn’t a venue of its size anywhere else in the state and major concerts, conventions and tournaments have no place to go between Washington and the Carolinas.
After plans to build an arena for the Sacramento Kings fell through, the city received rivaling proposals from a consortium of private companies to build and operate an arena anyways. Both proposals call for building the arena on city owned land across the street from its convention center a few blocks from the oceanfront. The city council is expected to decide whether to go forward with one of the plans next month.
“Any potential sports team would be a bonus,” said Joe Gelardi, arena program director for the United States Management, LLC proposal.
The primary difference between the proposals is that one would be privately owned and paid for with financing from a Chinese lender. The other would be owned by the city, but it would require substantial public money, including $25 million from the state and $150 million in bonds issued by the city. Virginia Beach would also be expected to contribute $12.5 million to match the investment made by Comcast-Spectacor, which would operate the arena and book entertainment acts under the proposal by the W.M. Jordan Company.
“The fact that with Comcast, with Live Nation, they can bring events in during the winter season, it just makes good economic sense to do it,” said Skip Smith, W.M. Jordan’s vice president.
Warren Harris, Virginia Beach’s economic development director, didn’t think he’d see another proposal for a new arena so soon after the last effort failed. But he said the $1.2 million the city spent on the arena project last time proves that Virginia Beach is a viable market for professional sports and other events that an arena would host.
“We do have and currently have the largest market in the U.S. without a professional team or an arena that could host a professional team,” Harris said. “That work that was done previously made it comfortable, made it doable, for us to actually have two proposals.”
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