The arena: Success as it was – ahem – planned


The late Joe Teague was unsuccessful in his many attempts as a Youngstown politician to get elected to office.

But the colorful city resident was right about at least one thing.

Ten years ago, amid a heated mayoral campaign and an even more-heated effort to open the new Convocation Center, Teague said:

“The city’s going to be paying for this [arena] when I’m dead and pushing up tulips.”

Well sadly, Joe died this summer. We are still paying for the facility – now the Covelli Centre. I did not confirm the tulips.

Oddly, reading back on that tumultuous era in 2005, he was one of the few officials who were correct.

So many others missed the mark. When you consider the cast of characters and incidents that marred the launch of the Convocation Center, it’s amazing the site now is not just another “Dollar General – same-day loan shop – cellphone store” plaza.

In my opinion, an entire downtown and economic revitalization owes its existence and future to one address:

229 E. Front St.

A book on the 10-year history of the facility could be called “From Three Doors Down to 13 Floors Up.”

Three Doors Down was the band that opened the facility Oct. 29, 2005.

And 13 Floors Up represents the downtown high-rises such as Realty, Wick and Stambaugh that now teem with life and potential – realities that did not exist in 2005.

Yes, the city is anchored by Youngstown State University and St. Elizabeth’s hospital as its largest employers and core institutions. And vital operations for city, county, state and federal governments base themselves downtown. But those truths existed while downtown lost to the suburbs over the past two decades.

Heck – even our beloved football team that generated national collegiate championships failed to ignite the downtown canyon.

If you look at downtown now, I think it’s impossible to not draw this line:

Places such as Wick Tower and The Fifth Floor restaurant today do not happen without Erie Terminal, Roberto’s and V2. Those latter places do not happen without Realty Tower and the now-forgotten Rosetta Stone restaurant. And those places do not happen – without Covelli Centre.

You can check off many other examples directly a result of the arena or at least on a parallel path of shared optimism. The Youngstown Business Incubator and Eastern Gateway Community College are two.

And I think when you look at YSU under former coach, now President Jim Tressel, so much of what his success can be will be aided by a new glow in the downtown community that did not exist when he was winning national titles.

To look back over 10 years, the arena may be the best Hollywood film yet to be made.

It was funded by the maverick maneuvers of a crooked and conspiring politician.

It was awash in local bickering from its first whispers. “What should it be?” “Where should it be?”

It was a fiscal mess out of the gate, including chapters such as paying $47,000 for curtains instead of $25,000 because leadership confused “lowest bidder” and “highest bidder.”

In one five-day window, the debt estimate went from $8 million to $10 million to $12 million.

Revenue projections were so far off, the Titanic and its iceberg could fit in the gap.

Such missteps and miscalculations are common for many such projects. But toss them into a community awash in a culture of competitive zest and corrupt compulsion, and at a time of an empty downtown and a contentious mayoral election, and you have a perfect storm that’s not fun to be a child of.

But the arena has grown up to be a proud child of the Valley.

Reporter Dave Skolnick has been covering the arena for 10 years – better, deeper and smarter than any other local journalist.

Watch for his coverage this week in The Vindicator on 10 years of the arena.

In the arena’s life story, I think you can trace its corrected success rather simply, and it’s a pairing not even whispered in the original plan.

Jay Williams won that 2005 mayoral race in a stunner. The arena’s challenges almost immediately engulfed his tenure, and he went at it hard, eventually kicking out the original management company. It was his team’s decision then to take a chance on Eric Ryan’s company to be the baby sitter of sorts for the facility until a new management company was found.

Well ... that was 2007.

Ryan’s company is the baby sitter who was never asked to leave. Often lost in the glee of sold-out appearances of legends such as Elton John, Barry Manilow, Tim McGraw, Rod Stewart and more are the behind-the-scenes gambles taken by Ryan. Elton John did not choose to come here. Ryan gambled on Elton just as Williams gambled on Ryan.

Knowing this marriage made from others’ mistakes, it seems just and fitting that their personal careers are among the Valley’s two most fortuitous in the past five years. Williams left to save cars and more; Ryan grew to pitch cars and more.

The arena’s success is not just an economic one. It’s mental, too.

Downtown is cool; downtown is safe; downtown is a destination.

That downtown we have now was the one envisioned 10 years ago when 229 E. Front St. opened.

Just as the original arena folks – ahem – planned it.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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