It's the calm after the storm at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock. I'm sitting in the waiting area of the administrative suite on a Tuesday morning prior to a visit with Michael Marion, the arena manager. The walls are covered with framed posters celebrating the many acts that have visited the arena the past two decades.
On the coffee table in front of me, the books deal mostly with music history. There's The Who along with The Beatles and Born To Run: Bruce Springsteen. Scattered among these books is The Legend of Alltel. Remember that it was Alltel Arena before it was Verizon Arena. And remember that Joe Ford, Alltel's chief executive officer, paid all of the money for the naming rights ($7 million) on the front end, allowing the arena to be completed in 1999 with no debt.
It's hard for me to believe it has been almost 20 years since I sat in the upper deck with my wife for that first Elton John concert. It's even harder to believe it has been about 30 years since I was the editor of Arkansas Business and writing a series of stories about a group of proposed projects known as Little Rock 2000. One of those projects would have been an arena (the Diamond Center) on the site of the old Coachman's Inn along Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock. The main U.S. Postal Service facility for Little Rock is now at that site. The tax increase needed to fund the package went down in flames in 1990, and central Arkansas civic leaders found themselves back at the drawing board.
"I have to give Buddy Villines credit," Marion says of the former Pulaski County judge. "He helped convince people that this needed to be a countywide project, not just a Little Rock project. He helped put forward the idea that the arena could be on the North Little Rock side of the river with an expansion of the convention center on the Little Rock side to keep both cities happy."
On Aug. 1, 1995, Pulaski County voters approved a one-cent sales tax that would run for one year. Almost $20 million would be used for the convention center expansion, with the rest going to build the arena. During the 1997 legislative session, the state committed another $20 million for the arena. An additional $17 million came from private contributions, along with the $7 million from Alltel.
Two sites were considered for the arena. The site that wasn't chosen later became Dickey-Stephens Park, the home of the Arkansas Travelers. It has long been recognized as being among the finest minor league baseball parks in the country.
I say it's the calm after the storm at Verizon Arena because of everything that went on the previous week. There was a Justin Timberlake concert on Thursday night that sold out the arena. After that, the staff scrambled to transform a concert venue into a sports venue for a Harlem Globetrotters game on Saturday afternoon. They scrambled again to turn the arena back into a concert facility for a Sunday night Metallica appearance with another sold-out crowd of more than 17,000 people.
"I'm glad we could give everybody on the staff the Martin Luther King holiday off," Marion says. "They deserved it."
The arena is governed by what's officially known as the Multi-Purpose Civic Center Facilities Board for Pulaski County. The board is chaired by Little Rock real estate developer Rett Tucker. Marion is quick to give his board credit for the arena's success.
"We've never had anyone on that board with a political agenda," Marion says. "That has been the beauty of it. They've generally been business people with a clear vision of how this should work. Thanks to their management, we've never had to go back to the taxpayers to request another temporary tax."
The fact that there's not ongoing tax revenue does put pressure on Marion to end each fiscal year in the black. He has done a remarkable job of that, lining up the types of acts that one doesn't always find in a metropolitan region of fewer than 1 million residents.
Marion received his bachelor's degree in business administration and management from Mississippi State University in 1976. He earned an MBA from the same school in 1978. Marion spent six years in Los Angeles working as an agent for Triad Artists. It was there that he got to know the music industry. Triad handled musicians ranging from Whitney Houston to Tina Turner.
"I learned that the Little Rock market was underserved," Marion says. "Shows would go from Nashville to Tulsa and skip Little Rock because Barton Coliseum was in such poor condition. There was pent-up demand in this market."
Marion's wife is from Los Angeles, but Marion decided in 1992 that he wanted to move back to the South. He managed an arena in Tupelo, Miss., before the Arkansas job came open in 1997.
"We went from a huge market to a tiny market to one I consider to be just the right size," Marion says.
He worked at the time for Leisure Management International, which sent him to Arkansas two years before the arena was finished. LMI later was purchased by real estate management giant SMC Inc. When the SMC contract expired, the arena board decided to hire Marion and have him report directly to the board. Verizon Arena, whose name will change to Simmons Bank Arena this fall, is in the top 30 or 40 venues nationally for tickets sold each year. It plays above its weight thanks to Marion's nationwide contacts.
"We're a consistent stop for groups that are touring," he says. "We have better concerts than Memphis even though it's a larger market. After 22 years here, I'm still having fun."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 01/30/2019
Print Headline: An arena turns 20