UMass Lowell Takes Over Tsongas

02/06/2010
By From the Boston Globe

By David Abel

The University of Massachusetts Lowell took ownership of the Tsongas Arena yesterday in a deal that requires the state college to assume the costs of running a 6,500-seat facility that has been in the red for years and that requires millions of dollars in maintenance and renovations.
 
The $1 agreement with the city of Lowell, which has been approved by state officials, reflects the school’s efforts to expand and appeal to a broader population of students.

University officials have renamed the arena the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell and promised to spend $5 million to make capital improvements, including a new video scoreboard. They said the arena will continue to host the school’s ice hockey team and the American Hockey League Lowell Devils, and will book concerts, family shows, and other events, including conventions, community ice skating, and campus ceremonies such as commencements. Planned is an interactive exhibit about the late US Senator Paul E. Tsongas, for whom the 12-year-old building is named.

“We’re acquiring the building to enhance campus life for our students,’’ said Martin Meehan, chancellor of UMass Lowell, in a telephone interview. “We feel confident we can run the building and dramatically reduce its deficit. We would be happy if we could break even on the building. That’s our goal.’’

He said the university’s acquisition of the arena is part of a larger effort that includes increasing the size of the student body, housing more students on campus, and opening new academic buildings. Last year, the campus acquired a Doubletree Hotel in downtown Lowell, now rechristened the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, which houses 400 students. In two years, the college plans to open two new academic buildings at a cost of $120 million.

Meehan said the student body has grown by 20 percent since he took over in 2007 and now has 6,800 undergraduates, about 40 percent of whom live on campus. His goal is to have at least 50 percent of students living on campus within two years, which he said increases the likelihood students would remain there through graduation.

“Having a world-class arena dramatically increases the prestige of our institution and increases the marketing potential,’’ he said. “It’s a great opportunity.’’

The deal for the arena, recently valued at $24 million, required the university to pay the city $800,000 for a nearby 3-acre parcel of waterfront property and provide the city with university-owned property on Pawtucket Boulevard. The university will also assume all costs of running the facility, which has been losing up to $1.3 million a year.

Meehan said he was confident the college would be able to generate enough revenue to maintain the arena. The university, he said, would do better than the city because it will revise contracts with vendors and teams, improve programming and increase the price of parking in the area, among other changes. It also will not have to pay interest on debt for the construction of the arena, which was borne by the city, university, and state. The state paid $20 million and UMass Lowell and the city each paid $4 million.

“We have to be entrepreneurial,’’ Meehan said. “But we’re essentially getting a $24 million building for free.’’

In a statement, city officials said they look forward to seeing the arena renovated.

“We welcome the changes the university is already bringing to Lowell’s largest concert, sports, and entertainment venue,’’ said Lowell City Manager Bernard Lynch.

In a separate statement, state Senator Steven Panagiotakos described the deal as good for both sides. “The taxpayers of Lowell save a million dollars a year, and UMass Lowell gets a first-class arena,’’ he said.