Wheeling to hire local firm for arena upgrades

WHEELING – Wheeling leaders unveiled images of a future, new-look WesBanco Arena on Tuesday as they prepare to invest more than $4 million in upgrades into the 37-year-old facility.

The city has selected M&G Architects of Wheeling from among five groups competing to design the project, and on Tuesday, Wheeling City Council heard the first reading of an ordinance to pay the firm a flat fee of $365,000 for its services with a vote on the contract set for June 17. Plans call for the city to sell bonds backed by a portion of revenue from Wheeling’s new 0.5-percent sales tax to fund construction.

City Manager Robert Herron discussed the impending improvements during the council meeting, and provided a first look at preliminary drawings depicting a much more modern flair for the arena, which was built in 1977 and serves as the home of the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.

Instead of using exterior steps to get to the front door, patrons would enter the building at street level and can use either stairways or an elevator to access the main concourse. Ticket windows also would be moved inside to the new lobby.

“This will improve the customer experience as soon as they walk in the front door,” Herron said.

Also targeted for replacement are the arena’s roughly 5,400 bright-orange seats, which are original to the building and, in many cases, in poor shape. The city also plans to install a center-mounted video board, and possibly ribbon boards, and upgrade restrooms and concession stands throughout the building.

Herron said the project will be broken into three separate contracts. They likely will bid out the video board first, possibly by next fall, followed by the seat replacement and facade overhaul sometime after the close of the 2014-15 hockey season.

Herron presented council with three options for financing, all of which he said fit into the city’s sales tax revenue projections: 10-year bonds with repayment costs of $468,000 per year, 15-year bonds at $371,000 annually or 20-year bonds at $312,000 per year. That decision will be up to council and likely will be made in August, Herron said.

The 10-year bonds would be the least expensive long-term, at $4.68 million. But the 20-year bonds, with lower annual payments, could give the city added flexibility to complete another project on its wish list: Building convention space at or near the arena. That plan would cost the city about $6.24 million over the life of the loan.

“We’ve left enough room in the revenue stream to look at convention space down the road,” Herron said.

The upgrades come as city officials focus on improving fan experience at the arena. Attendance at Wheeling Nailers hockey games has been on the decline over the past few seasons, and the arena was operating at a $127,000 loss for the 2013-14 fiscal year as of April 30.

An infusion of $200,000 in hotel/motel tax revenue is keeping the facility in the black, according to the arena’s most recent financial statement.