TUCSON – When the Tucson Roadrunners play their first home game Friday, they’ll do so at a dramatically renovated Tucson Convention Center.
The Roadrunners – a minor league hockey team that was purchased by the Arizona Coyotes and relocated to Tucson from Springfield, Massachusetts – found a home in the TCC, which was built in 1971.
But before the American Hockey League team could play its first game at the downtown Tucson arena, improvements had to be made.
The Rio Nuevo District, which owns the arena, was at the forefront of completing those renovations. District Board Chair Fletcher McCusker and Vice Chair Mark Irvin led the $11.7 million project to get the building ready for a professional hockey team.
“The AHL came down and had to approve this venue, and then they had to tell us what it was deficient in so we could address that,” Irvin said. “That just gets us to their standards. It still doesn’t get us to (the Roadrunners’) standards.”
A group in charge of planning and completing renovations constructed completely new locker rooms, replaced the sound system, added a new video system, renovated the bathrooms, painted significant portions of the interior walls, replaced lighting, built a press box, added weight room facilities, changed out the concession stands and replaced the seats.
“Women said, ‘I’m not going into the restroom. Your restrooms are grungy,’” Irvin said. “So we fixed that.”
Irvin was particularly fond of an ambient piece in those bathrooms: escalator steps that had been converted into a flat lighting feature on the walls, an idea conceived by project manager Elaine Becherer.
But the improvement process began long before the former Springfield Falcons were acquired by the Coyotes and moved to southern Arizona.
“When we renovated the TCC initially, we had hopes that we’d find an anchor tenant,” Irvin said. “We were lucky when we found out that the Coyotes were shopping for a farm team. So we reached out to them very early on.”
The “build it and they will come” philosophy of McCusker and Irvin paid off.
And the project didn’t just improve an arena for a new hockey team; it was a part of the Rio Nuevo’s attempt to revitalize a budding downtown Tucson.
“(The Roadrunners) skate 34 home games here,” McCusker said. “We expect 5,000 or more fans per game, so that’s about 200,000 people coming downtown, not only for hockey but to a restaurant or a bar or a club before and after hockey. We estimated an economic impact to downtown Tucson of over $7 million a year.”
Bob Hoffman, the president of the Roadrunners, said his organization is getting acclimated to the growing area.
“From a player standpoint, it’s been outstanding,” Hoffman said. “They love what they’re seeing. They love the area. They love the marketplace. They’re finding great places to live. They’re realizing that Tucson is a gem down here.
“From our standpoint and our staff and putting a group in place, it’s been a fabulous opportunity for us, too, to get used to the area. Because right now, out of our crew, I’d say 75 percent of us have moved to the area to be a part of this journey, whereas the other 25 percent are native Tucsonans.”
Now that the arena is ready for the Roadrunners home opener against the Stockton Heat on Friday, the only thing that remains under construction is a loyal fan base.
“You see across the country, hockey fans are as fanatical as they get, whether it’s throwing an octopus on the ice (in Detroit) or throwing rats onto the ice down in Florida,” Hoffman said. “We’ll see what Tucson comes up with here in the desert.”