The iconic Pepsi Coliseum, Indianapolis, is getting a $53 million redo.

By one architect’s count, there are 80 aging arenas on fairgrounds that once functioned as the center of entertainment in town. Pushed aside by flashy new National Basketball Association and National Hockey League 15,000-seat-plus palaces, most of those arenas are now used to far less than potential.

Charlie Smith, Populous, would like to change that scenario. The showcase example for his firm of what can be done is Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana State Fair, Indianapolis.

“We find these arenas about the right size, 6,000-8,000 seats, a good size so that they are not competing with the facility downtown,” Smith said. Booking agents and concert promoters have long been saying that 5,000 seats is a sweet spot for touring talent. And they have significant historic value.

But these fairgrounds arenas have Americans with Disabilities Act issues, poor or no amenities from concessions to restrooms, and an aging structure.

“You have to treat them carefully,” Smith said, “but they are right-sized for a lot of good uses. There is a good amount of expense involved.”

Both Pepsi Coliseum and Rimrock Auto Arena in Metrapark, Billings, Mont., which was rebuilt after being damaged by a tornado, cost in the $30 million-$50 million range to upgrade and update.

Cindy Hoye, manager of the Indiana State Fair, said refurbishing Pepsi Coliseum is the main capital improvement for that fair for the next 20 years.

“This is the signature piece, the icon,” she said of the $53-million project.

First, the fair is building a new $10 million, covered arena attached to the south side of Pepsi Coliseum, which will open in 2013. That arena will function as a second sheet of ice and as a 20,000-sq.-ft., multiuse venue. It used to be a tin shed over a warmup arena,” she said. “Now it will be able to support all sorts of things.”

On Oct. 28, they put the shovel in the ground to transform Pepsi Coliseum. It will be closed until the fair of 2014. The iconic façade will be preserved, but the arena will basically be gutted and replaced with state-of-the-art, brand new seating, staging and amenities, Hoye said.

She began telling the story of the new Pepsi Coliseum (which will be renamed) at the International Entertainment Buyers Association meeting in Nashville in September and hopes it will generate new bookings not only in the concert world, but sports as well. It may help bring hockey back to the fairgrounds. The fair already has a strong public skating program, which is the reason for the second sheet of ice. “We’re back into the arena world full force,” she said.

More than just arena shows, though, the venue is a key to the attractiveness of the whole fairgrounds complex. The Mecum Car Auction, for instance, uses eight buildings on the fairgrounds and will be able to use the coliseum in a whole new way. During the fair, concerts will be moved to the arena from the grandstand.

Hoye agrees with Smith that there is a need in the industry to “be good stewards of our complexes. Pepsi Coliseum was a signature piece of our revenue stream. We had to rebuild it. A lot of fairs have an arena as a signature and if you don’t restore it you have a problem with your whole organization.”

All Things Equine 

Fairgrounds are also leaders in the equestrian field, with the Oklahoma State Fair, Oklahoma City, continuing to set the bar.

Populous’ Todd Gralla said, “Equestrian is very strong right now, nationally and internationally. There’s a lot of depth in the industry, from collegiate type equestrian facilities to very large venues like National Western [Denver] and Oklahoma City.”

Oklahoma City is in the process of adding another 150 X 400-foot covered arena, one of the largest in the country. Horse show producers look at it like a trade show floor. It is very flexible and allows them so many more revenue opportunities. “[Oklahoma City] wants to protect the investment they’ve made and have set financial mechanisms in place so they can continue to upgrade,” Gralla noted. WestWorld, Scottsdale, Ariz., also continues to upgrade with addition of a multiuse arena.

At this point, Oklahoma City has 3,200 stalls while WestWorld has 1,600 permanent and 1,200 temporary. Right now, Will Rogers Center, Ft. Worth, Texas, is number two in horse stalls to Oklahoma City, but WestWorld is catching up.

WestWorld has attracted private investment from three of its biggest users to help build its new $50-million multiuse venue. The Arizona Quarter Horse Association, Arizona Arabian Horse Association and Barrett Jackson Auto Auction have committed $20 million to paying off the debt on a building which will eliminate the need for each association to bring in temporary facilities. It’s a wash economically and a powerful statement to voters who had to approve the remaining debt service, Gralla said. 

“Every city involved in major equestrian events looks at Oklahoma City, which has made such a commitment to equestrian,” Gralla said.

Mallet Event Center, which just opened in Levelland, Texas, is a prime example of what can be done with multipurpose venues. It includes an arena, expo hall, banquet room and warmup area all in one combined building.

“Communities are now appreciating equestrian facilities as being significant economic drivers,” Smith observed. 

Education Is In on the Act 

Lachlan Oldaker, specialty practice leader/senior equine architect, GH2, has finished a master plan for a new $80-million equestrian center for Texas A&M University, College Station, which will set the bar high in the horse world.

The first phase is $35 million. The university’s goal is to bring everything into one complex — the equestrian, rodeo and polo teams as well as the Calvary, which performs at the school’s football games. Oldaker said the project will include team barns, two covered arenas, educational facilities and classrooms, training and warm up space, locker rooms, pastures and turnouts.

GH2 also worked on a master plan for the Park of East Texas, formerly known as East Texas State Fair, Tyler, and acted in an advisory capacity for the California Equestrian Park and Event Center, Santa Rosa.

The new construction dial seems to be moving in the fairgrounds and equestrian world as the economy shows signs of life again.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of those that has long been in the renovation news, particularly regarding what to do about the Astrodome, closed for many years now.

Something has to be decided, agreed Skip Wagner, president, but “the Astroarena is also not getting in any better shape. I think that while the economy sure isn’t great, two years ago it was really coming out of the doldrums. Over the last two years, everyone has taken a shot at anything that would be reasonable for the Astrodome. There isn’t going to be a private solution for it.”

But Astroarena has to be renovated or replaced soon. “Look at the quality of equine facilities, including Oklahoma City, Ft. Worth and Las Vegas. We want to put on the best show anywhere and it’s not going to happen with that existing arena. It’s more of a 3-5 year deal, but it’s definitely on the radar. But no one wants to deal with it during an election season, so it’s all quiet, but I’m not pessimistic.”

Interviewed for this story: Charlie Smith and Todd Gralla, (865) 694-5485; Cindy Hoye, (317) 927-7501; Lachlan Oldaker, (405) 701-1515; Skip Wagner, (832) 667-1017