By Dennis Shaughnessey
LOWELL -- Paul Tsongas would have been thrilled to see the arena that bears his name enter a new phase.
The transfer of the Tsongas Arena from the city to UMass Lowell was approved by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick earlier this week. The arena will now be known as the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell.
In addition to serving as home to UML's River Hawks hockey team, the Tsongas Center will host a variety of other events, including the American Hockey League's Lowell Devils, concerts, family shows, conventions and school functions.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas said it had long been her late husband's vision that the construction of an arena and a ballpark would turn a tired, old city around.
"He cared very deeply about the city and saw this as a great opportunity," Tsongas said during a brief ceremony in the arena lobby celebrating the transfer. "After his unsuccessful run at the presidency (in 1992), he really turned his laser-beam energy back on the city of Lowell. He never got to see it, but he would have been so happy to be here today as the arena moves on to this new and different life."
The ceremony was attended by city and state officials, as well as members of the River Hawks and student-government leaders.
UML Chancellor Marty Meehan said the deal is "just one more example of how UMass Lowell is enhancing campus life for our students."
Meehan also mentioned a $3.7 million, university-owned parcel next to the arena that he hopes will someday be the site of a hotel that will add the type of space needed to attract trade shows and conventions.
"The parcel needs work in terms of cleanup, but we have a vision that will complement the agreement between the city and the university," Meehan said, adding that a management contract will go out to bid in the next four to six weeks.
The arena is managed by SMG, whose contract expires in June. Meehan said a consultant has been hired who is working to encourage competition from companies across the country to take over the contract.
"I'm excited and confident that we will get some great responses from people who hear that we are going to put $5 million into this building," Meehan said, referring to the new 400-foot, electronic "ribbon board" that displays cheers, messages and sponsor ads.
Colorful banners and signs displaying the Tsongas Center and UMass Lowell logos hang in locations throughout the facility. A new video scoreboard, exterior marquee and improved sound system will all be in place within months, Meehan said.
City Manager Bernie Lynch, who spent nearly two years in negotiations with Meehan to facilitate the deal, said the transaction is something that works for both sides.
"What's good for the university is good for the city and clearly, what's good for the city is good for the university," Lynch said. "Putting the arena in the hands of the university will enable it to expand and grow in its importance and make the university that much stronger. At the same time, the city still has a premier entertainment venue right here in our downtown."
Student Government President Mike Mizzoni said plans are already under way to bring more university-sponsored concerts and performances to the arena, including an April 29 performance by 2010 Grammy nominee Drake.