By From the Lowell Sun
By Dennis Shaughnessey
LOWELL -- Many in the crowd at last night's hockey game between the UMass Lowell River Hawks and the Boston University Terriers had no clue why a contingent of local, state and university officials were stepping onto the ice at the Tsongas Arena after the first period.
City Manager Bernie Lynch, state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, UML Chancellor Marty Meehan and UMass President Jack Wilson, sat at a table at center ice and signed the hard-fought purchase-and-sale agreement under which the university takes ownership of the arena from the city.
A thunderous roar erupted from the crowd of 5,496 as the voice over the public-address system boomed, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's our team. It's our time, and now, it's our arena."
Prior to the game, more than 100 people crowded into the Talon Room in the upper level of the arena, where the deal was first announced.
The university paid $1 for the arena. In exchange, the city will receive four acres of university-owned land in Pawtucketville, near the UMass Lowell boathouse. Three acres adjacent to the arena are being sold "as is" to the university for $800,000.
"For us, this is about making UMass Lowell a place where students want to be," Meehan said, pointing out that UMass Lowell was the only team in the Division I Hockey East conference that did not own its rink. "The arena will help us provide the array of activities and events necessary to keep them engaged and happy -- important ingredients for ensuring that students succeed academically."
Meehan said he envisioned construction of a hotel and conference center on the property next door.
"Often, this arena cannot attract the type of trade shows that it would like to because of a lack of conference space," Meehan said. "If we have a hotel right next door, that will put us in a much stronger position."
Congratulations were the order of the evening, as officials praised Meehan and Lynch for the arduous negotiations over the past 14 months. Praise was also heaped upon Panagiotakos for his role as a mediator between the two.
"The university is clearly the most important user of this facility," Lynch said. "This is truly a partnership between the state, the university and the city and this transfer maintains that partnership. I'm confident that along with everything else Marty has done since he's come to the university, will spill over to the Arena and it will just improve over time."
Before the university takes outright ownership of the arena, the City Council must pass a home-rule petition that must be approved by the state Legislature. Under university management, the arena would continue to offer the same quality events as in past years, including River Hawks and AHL-affiliated Lowell Devils hockey, other sporting events, family shows and concerts, and a wide array of events and performances. In addition to the university, many local high schools use the arena for their commencement exercises in the spring.
The Tsongas Arena, named after the late U.S. Sen. and Lowell native Paul Tsongas, opened in January 1998. Its construction was funded with $20 million from the state, $4 million from UMass Lowell and $4 million from the city. The arena was recently assessed at $24 million.
"This agreement is a testament to the chancellor and the city manager both of whom are tremendous fighters for the institutions they represent," said Panagiotakos, who helped broker the deal. "At the end of the day, we found the common ground we were searching for and they made it work."
Following the announcement, Meehan said the Tsongas name would remain on the facility, but he is trying to find a way to incorporate the university name on the building.
"It's likely it will be something like the UMass Lowell-Tsongas Center," Meehan said, adding that he wants to retain the Lowell Devils hockey team at the arena. "We are looking at every conceivable opportunity to make this Arena successful. This will ultimately benefit everyone who lives, learns, works and finds enjoyment in this city."