There has been a lot of talk recently about the “Orlando Venues” – the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the Citrus Bowl and a new soccer stadium. Everyone else is giving their opinion, so I figured why not give mine too. While I’m writing this on our company blog, I make no claims for this being our company-wide opinion, just my own personal opinion.
I’m originally from the Chicago area, lived there for 23 years before moving to Central Florida in 1998. When people ask me if I miss Chicago, I respond with the following: I miss my friends, family and culture. Missing my friends and family are the obvious ones but when I say culture people usually ask about that. What I mean is that I miss going to Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears, White Sox and Cubs games. For clarity I’m more of a White Sox fan but enjoy Wrigley Field. I also miss seeing plays and musicals at the Chicago Theatre, the Auditorium Theatre, or any other great venues in Chicago. I’ve seen Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera (multiple times), Lord of the Dance, and many other plays, musicals, events, etc. in some of the best venues during my time in Chicago.
When I moved to Central Florida 15+ years ago I quickly realized there weren’t nearly as many options for sports and cultural activities. I absolutely took it for granted when I lived in Chicago, I got spoiled. And I didn’t realize how important those things were until I didn’t have them anymore. I enjoy the Orlando Magic and Orlando Solar Bears, but 2 sports teams compared the 5 major professional teams plus multiple minor league teams doesn’t really compare. Then the Bob Carr doesn’t really compare to the multiple world-famous theaters in the Chicago area (no offense to the Bob Carr of course).
That brings me to present day Orlando. Very soon, the County Commissioners of Orange County will vote to determine if they will allow money to be used for further upgrades to the Citrus Bowl, additional money for the Performing Arts Center, and to contribute to the building of a soccer stadium that would open the door to a Major League Soccer team in Orlando.
Any time public money is spent, one of the arguments against it is around “return on investment.” If $X is spent, how much will we get in return. Unfortunately, that’s not always the best way to look at a situation like this. What dollar amount can you put on something that makes the community better? How do you put a price tag on quality of life? I can tell you for 23 years, the quality of my life was greatly enhanced by having tremendous venues which gave me and my family a lot of options for enjoyment. Those options helped me be a well-rounded person culturally.
While not as intense as now, there were similar discussions about the money spent on the Amway Center here in Downtown Orlando a couple years ago. I’m not here to argue whether the business around the Amway Center have profited like they wanted to since the arena opened. I will say it’s not the Amway Center’s responsibility or the city’s responsibility to ensure businesses are successful, the business needs to take responsibility for their successes or failures. What I can say for certain is that the quality of life for people interested in events has greatly been enhanced. Since the Amway Center opened, Orlando has hosted the NBA All-Star Game, the Arena Bowl, many, many concerts that would not have come to Orlando without (arguably) the best arena in the country, maybe the world. And next spring we host early rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, something we have not done in Central Florida in years. All of those things, every single one of them, come to Orlando, spend a lot of money, because we built a new arena. They absolutely would not have come here without the Amway Center. The same thing will happen when we have a soccer stadium, and complete the Performing Arts Center and New Citrus Bowl the right way.
People, groups, events want to go to the best places, the best venues. It’s easy to sit here now and say “why spend $X million to build a soccer (only) stadium for an MLS team that will only play there 15, 20, 30 games a year.” That is an extremely short sighted way to look at it. Looking at things that way make us a behind the times, not visionary community. Rather than saying that, why not look at the challenge of how we can find new things, new opportunities to use the venue for the community. Similar arguments were made in Chicago (after I moved) about building a soccer (only) stadium. The city eventually found a way to build the 20,000 stadium and it’s now one of the most popular venues in Chicago for the Chicago Fire (soccer) as well as international soccer matches, concerts, events, etc.
The argument of “why can’t they just play at the Citrus Bowl” is misguided. If that were the case, no high school or (local) universities should build basketball gyms/arenas, they should just play at the Amway Center. As a former athlete, I can tell you from experience, I’d rather play in front of a packed house that holds 3,000 people as opposed to playing in front of 3,000 in a mostly empty 10,000 seat stadium. It’s not a good use of time, space, or energy to play small events in a 70,000 Citrus Bowl, not to mention a buzz-kill for the participants. That’s why the MLS isn’t interested in Orlando without a soccer (sized) stadium. Having a soccer stadium in Orlando will bring a new MLS team but even more significantly even more opportunities such as high school and soccer games, international soccer matches, college lacrosse games, rugby matches, concerts, community events, etc. The MLS team should be looked at as the base minimum for usage of the new stadium, not the maximum. If we don’t attract other uses and revenue generating opportunities for a new stadium, then we, as a community, are not holding up our end of the bargain.
While the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is already under construction, the question is whether the county should provide additional funding that would allow the Performing Arts Center to move towards the next phase of construction sooner rather than later. Like the soccer stadium, this is a no brainer. Build it right the first time or don’t build it at all. The Arts Community is so strong here in Central Florida with there not being a unified “home base”. The Performing Arts Center, like the Amway Center will be the standard for Performing Arts Centers that are built worldwide for years to come. The support that the Arts Community gets already is incredible, I cannot wait to see how this community embraces the arts we it has a place to call home. The Performing Arts Center has already raised a huge amount of money towards the project so there’s no doubt they will acquire what’s needed and anything Orange County can do to help is very much appreciated and warranted.
The Citrus Bowl hosts 3 “major” football games per year, one around Thanksgiving and two Bowl Games around New Years. All we hear about during those times is the millions of dollars that are brought in to our community by people attending the games. Why not have more? The Citrus Bowl is already going to be renovated and by all accounts it’s going to be great. Like the Performing Arts Center, let’s not just do it ok, the bare minimum, let’s do it right. When the Citrus Bowl is completed, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect a pre-season Tampa Bay Buccaneers game or Jacksonville Jaguars game every year. For that matter, they can’t get people to go to regular season games in Jacksonville so we might even get a regular season game. Notre Dame already plays one neutral site football game a year and they’ve expressed interest in making a stop in Orlando. Neutral site college football games are all the rage. It would be great to see a Florida, Florida St. or Miami game in Orlando. There are multiple games each year in Houston, Dallas, Chicago, etc., Orlando will be no different if the Citrus Bowl renovation is done properly and this small amount of additional funding from Orange County will do that.
There has been talk about additional post reason games in Orlando, possibly National Semifinal or National Championship games. That, frankly, might be a long shot, but we already have two great bowl games so if we get another high profile game that would be a bonus. But similar to not looking at the soccer stadium solely for the MLS team, we shouldn’t look at the Citrus Bowl solely for the 3 major games we already have. Those should be the bare minimum for us to build on. And given what the Citrus Bowl has been able to do the last 10 years with the current condition of the stadium, I have no doubt we’re going to have some great events in the New Citrus Bowl when it’s done.
So that’s it, that’s my opinion. It’s not good business to say do it and figure it out later and I am far from encouraging that behavior. But I am encouraging Orange County to be visionary, take prudent risks, be willing to take a chance to make our region great. I don’t want to be average, I want to be THE event destination in the state of Florida, actually the entire southeast (don’t say Atlanta, the Georgia Dome is 20+ years old and they are trying to figure out what’s next). It’s not always about looking at dollar for dollar, it’s about the quality of life for those that call Central Florida home. Please Orange County Commissioners, don’t let us be average, help make us great.