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What Does The Future Hold For Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena?

Change is in the air at the BCA, as the City of Rochester boots SMG in exchange for PSE as managers of the building and its operations.

blue cross arena image rochester new york
Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial
Matthew D. Wilson

After 18 years, the City of Rochester has terminated the contract with worldwide venue management company SMG; a familiar name has taken over the Blue Cross Arena on a temporary contract that runs through December 31, 2018: Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

Reports indicate that declining revenues and $800,000 in overdue payments are the primary reasons for the change. For its part, SMG denies that they are overdue on payments. The arena is owned by the city and the Democrat & Chronicle reports that taxpayer subsidized funding for the building has tripled in the past 5 years - up to $1.2 million. The new contract with PSE will see them paying $5,000 monthly in rent as tenants to the city while the two parties work towards a long-term deal.

Amerks VP of Business Operations, Rob Minter, was recently interviewed on ESPNRochester. He was understandably tight-lipped about the ongoing negotiations, any expected changes, and future plans. Unfortunately there were no new insights revealed during the conversation.

What does this mean for the Amerks?

In the short term, this change won’t have much effect on the team at all. They’ll still keep their offices at the arena, hold the majority of practices there, and play their home games on the ice. Assuming a long-term deal can be established between PSE and the city, it will provide stability to the team, which has been operating on one-year leases for the past several seasons. It would also provide security against the extremely unlikely nightmare of the team leaving Rochester, something fans of the Rochester Red Wings were legitimately in fear of happening just a few months ago.

What does this mean for fans?

Again, not much will change in the short term. The problems with the fan experience at the BCA are well known:

  • Bathrooms haven’t been renovated in years; broken fixtures, faucets, etc., have been an ongoing problem.
  • The seating in the arena is cramped both in terms of width and leg room; most of the cup holders in the building have either been officially removed or physically broken off by fans looking for a few more inches for their knees.
  • The audio/visual systems are downright embarrassing; good luck understanding anything coming through the PA if you’re sitting in the 200 level or in the upper rows of the 100 level - you’d have a better chance of deciphering the mumbles of a NYC subway operator - and how about those 20 year old CRT televisions in the hallways? Embarrassing doesn’t even begin to describe it.
CRT TVs adorn the entire arena
Nick Bonk
  • The scoreboard is so bad that at some point during the last month of the season, the river-side video screen decided it didn’t want to work anymore and both the team and the city threw their hands up and said “sorry... the building is so old that we can’t find a fiscal way to fix it,” so while it would work intermittently, it was unreliable and some fans spent entire periods of games staring at a static image, including a frozen time clock and scoreboard.
  • Oh, and don’t forget the BCA scoreboard’s most laughable trait: it doesn’t sit directly above center ice. Nope. The center of the scoreboard at BCA actually sits closer to a blueline than center ice.

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New building management isn’t likely to solve those problems, though earlier this year the city did announce they were looking for proposals to upgrade the A/V systems and add an Exchange Street expansion (including a locker room, office space, and additional concessions space). goes into great detail about those expansion plans. I have yet to see any information about whether these plans have been put on hold now that there is new management involved.

What does this mean for the city?

Back in March of 2018, the city officially announced a new program designed to draw attention, funding, development, and tourism to the areas around the Genesee river in the downtown corridor. As it stands today, the ROC the Riverway program includes the Blue Cross Arena in its plans. Few details have emerged about what exactly the city has in mind for the arena in regards to this program, but now that the city has reached an agreement with PSE to manage the building, when combined with the already announced expansion/renovation plans, it’s clear that the city hasn’t given up on the BCA location; in fact, they are actively looking for ways to reinvigorate the spot, which features some prime riverfront real estate and great views of the river itself from both inside and outside the arena.

What about a new arena?

We’ve arrived at the juicy speculative part of this news. Everything that follows is just my own opinion on the matter.

In the event that PSE and the city can arrange a long-term management deal for the BCA, things could get very interesting. Managing the building and owning it’s primary tenant (and revenue source) would give PSE some leverage against the city should Kim and Terry Pegula ultimately decide that they want to throw their money into a brand new arena.

The Blue Cross Arena at the Community War Memorial, as it’s officially known, was first opened in October, 1955. The building underwent a major renovation in 1998 but has been in decline in recent years. It is now 63 years old and it both looks and feels the part. Dumping tens of millions of dollars into renovating a 63 year old building makes as much sense to me as paying $15,000 to repair a 20 year old Honda Civic.

Many will rightfully argue that a new arena is fiscally irresponsible. This is a difficult time for many. Rochester has several very serious problems - most notably, one of the worst-performing school districts in the country and some of the most severe poverty in the entire country. A sparkling new arena isn’t going to make those problems disappear, particularly if the city is spending a lot of taxpayer money to build it.

However, if the Pegulas decide that they want to help reinvent downtown Rochester much in the same way they have reinvigorated Buffalo’s downtown, then the city would be crazy to not listen to what they have to say.

Where could a new arena be built?

I quickly threw together the map below, focusing on Rochester’s downtown core. While there is plenty of space in the suburbs, I don’t think it’s realistic, nor a good idea, for a new arena to be built outside of the city center, particularly with the city’s emphasis on reviving this area. This map ignores any possibility of demolishing existing structures to create additional space, so I mainly looked for large parking lots that could be quickly and relatively easily converted into new arena space.

  • The red square is the existing Blue Cross Arena.
  • The green and blue squares are the same physical footprint as the existing arena, copied onto what I think are the most logical choices for a new arena to be built.
  • The yellow squares identify several existing downtown parking garages.
Where could a new arena be built?
Potential Downtown Locations + Parking Garages

Options 1 and 2 (green and blue squares).

The green square gets my vote for the ideal location to build any new arena. It sits directly across from Frontier Field (where the Red Wings play baseball), and in the shadow of Kodak tower - which has recently become a downtown campus for Monroe Community College. Additionally, there is an existing multi-level parking garage directly beside it. Finally, the city has made several attempts in the past few decades to draw a crowd to this part of the city for both residential and entertainment purposes.

The Brown’s Race district has its roots in the city’s flour mill past, and it’s all just a few short steps from the Genesse River’s beautiful High Falls area. The blue square would work as well, as it has similar benefits, but it’s a bit farther from the existing parking garage.

Additional underground parking, built below any new arena, would probably be a good idea, particularly as Frontier Field/MCC would lose a significant surface lot if either option became a reality. On the plus side, both of these lots are somewhat larger than the existing BCA footprint, which could potentially allow for a roomier new arena, alleviating one of the BCA’s biggest problems.

Blow it all up and start over!

Ultimately the best option might end up being the most complicated: demolish the existing building and rebuild a modern arena in its place. This is my favorite of all the options. As with everything, there are advantages and disadvantages to this.

On the advantages side of thing: location, location, location. This spot - directly on the riverfront - has historical and nostalgic value. If a new structure retains the existing war memorial (which is rarely visited by fans, as it’s tucked away in a relatively unadvertised portion of the building), then it could be easier to quiet the voices of those who argue that the current building shouldn’t be modified. Also, there is already ample parking available to service this spot - with three large garages within a quarter-mile walk, one of which is connected to the site via underground tunnel.

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As for disadvantages, the main problem is obvious: the Amerks would have to play at least one full season at an alternate location or locations while the existing structure is razed and the new building is built in its footprint. The good news is that there are several logical choices. My ideal situation would see the team split their season between 3 or 4 rinks in both Rochester and Buffalo.

In Rochester, the best temporary location would be at RIT’s sparkling new arena, the Gene Polisseni Center, which can accommodate 4,300 fans. Scheduling around RIT’s D1 men’s and women’s hockey programs would complicate things a bit, so the second Rochester location would be the Bill Gray’s Regional Ice Plex, a multi-rink facility at which they already hold some practices during the year. In Buffalo, the logical choices would be to play some games at Key Bank Center and other games at HARBORCENTER.

The BCA is also the home arena for the NLL’s Rochester Knighthawks, and they’d have a similar predicament when it comes to finding an alternate space. However, their future in Rochester is not on solid ground beyond the 2018-2019 season. There are usually a plethora of high school championship events, graduations, and major touring concerts/shows that would need to find new homes in the interim.

Finally, as the existing location is hemmed in by three significant downtown roads and the river, any new arena could be expected to stand taller, with a higher ceiling above the ice and perhaps tiered seating to accommodate more fans and/or provide better sight lines. In the end, anything that could be done to increase space for fans both in their seats and in the hallways/concession areas would be an upgrade over what they’ve endured for 60+ years.

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What do you think?

Let us know in the comments what you’d like to see. Have you been to the BCA recently, and if so, what was your experience like? Do you think a new arena would be beneficial to the organization in any way?