TUPELO • It’s been more than 25 years since the BancorpSouth Arena opened its doors to the public, and soon, those doors will open a little wider.
Plans have been underway for some time for the entertainment venue to stretch its legs, but with the project going out for bids in mere weeks – just what will the arena look like after the dust settles?
A new box office, new connection to the existing conference center next door and expanded hospitality space are just the tip of the iceberg for what arena executive director Todd Hunt has planned for the revitalization.
“We realized in 2015 that this needed to happen,” Hunt said of the project. “We’ve been working on it ever since. We’ve had consultants come in and study it; worked through the city to try and find a way to fund it. It’s taken us a couple of years, but we finally found a way.”
Using bonds and funding from the 2 percent hotel and restaurant tax, the city of Tupelo will provide the estimated $15 million needed to bring the project to fruition.
“It enables us to be able to pull this off without having any kind of tax increase to citizens,” Hunt said. “It will have no impact on anyone’s tax burden anywhere.”
The plan details 12 months worth of new construction and six months of renovation of the existing facility, with a target date of completion set for February 2021.
Work is expected to begin in mid-September.
“There were a couple of key drivers to this,” Hunt said. “One was a lack of hospitality space for arena events. If you go to shows in any other market in the country, they all have areas where people can congregate that aren’t just in the seating bowl. They have some kind of club or some kind of space for gathering. We knew we needed some space like that and there was no way to reconfigure anything in the existing arena to work for that.
“The other piece we were lacking was a covered connection between the conference center and the arena. When we took over management of that building in 2013, we had known from sharing events in the past, but it was made crystal clear that in, say, February, it’s not fun to walk between the two buildings whether it’s raining or snowing or just cold. Same goes for August when it’s hot or there’s a thunderstorm. We knew we needed to connect the two.”
Hunt said the third factor that warranted this refresh of the facility was a lack of available scheduling dates.
“We were too small for some events and this expansion will allow us to go after larger ones,” he said. “When you start putting all those pieces together, it made sense to do this as one big project.”
The anticipated $15 million bill will include not only expansion and renovation, but also furnishings, fixtures and elements to go within.
“Interiors of most conference centers are renovated every eight to 10 years,” he said. “Ours opened in 2006, so we’re 13 years old and have never done a renovation. It was past time for that.”
In addition to the new connection between the two facilities, the conference center will also extend out further into its existing parking lot.
In the past two decades, patrons of the arena have been accustomed to entering from the south on entrances flanking the box office.
That, too, will change with the refresh as ticket holders will enter from the east and west sides of the building, with windows on the new box office facing either side.
“The way we’re changing the traffic flow, changing some food and beverage options and the addition of two new bathrooms should help with congestion during larger events,” he said.
But Hunt assured that while the facility might look under construction outside, it will definitely be open for business inside.
“We’re going to stay open the entire time which is going to be a bit of a challenge for us to pull that off, but we’re going to sequence our construction with our events to be able to make that happen,” he said. “Because of where the construction is going, we’re going to have to recreate the box office, but that will end up being a permanent move. We’ll have a trailer in the meantime while we’re building the new space for them.
“We’re going to have to be sensitive to what’s going on as is the nature with any kind of project. It’s a process to work through. But at the end of this, the result will be tremendous and we’re excited about that,” Hunt said.
McCarty Architects developed the new design for the buildings and Integrated Construction Management in Oxford will be handling the day-to-day operations of the facelift as the arena remains open for concerts, events and conferences.
Following completion, Hunt anticipates operating the expanded footprint of the conference center and arena out of the current nearly $6 million budget for the venue.
“We’ve been running both the arena and the conference center out of the same funding from the city that we’ve gotten for the past 20 years,” he said. “We keep growing our operation, but we’ve remained within the same budget. Our plan is just to keep moving forward and we’ll find new ways to cover our costs.
Since January 1, more than 140,000 patrons have entered the arena for entertainment events alone, including public ice skating, WWE, James Taylor, “The Price is Right Live!” and, most recently, Hank Williams Jr.
Hunt said the offerings will only be able to increase with the new features being added to the facilities.
“I think this will position us for the next 20 years to be as viable as we can be,” Hunt said. “It will allow us to meet the needs of the event-going public moving forward. It keeps us on par, if not ahead of, our competitors. We know we’re the nicest arena in a town of 35,000 people anywhere in the country because we’re the only arena in a town of 35,000 people – but that’s not good enough. We want to make sure we’re competing at that high level.
“That’s one reason we’ve spent $1.3 million replacing all of our seats over the last three years and why we’re constantly reinvesting in the facility so we’re making sure we keep everything as nice as it can be and keeping it up to date.”