- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 28, 2012

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Beach economic development officials revealed an ambitious plan Tuesday to build a $350 million arena at the city’s oceanfront and draw an NBA or NHL team to Virginia’s largest city.

Virginia Beach Director of Economic Development Warren Harris briefed City Council members on a proposal to build an 18,500-seat arena across the street from the city’s convention center in the heart of the community’s resort district.

It’s unclear exactly who would pay for the arena’s construction, although it would be built on city-owned land and Harris suggested it would involve state and local funding. City officials say a stadium could be built with a pro basketball or hockey team playing in it as early as 2015.

Virginia Beach officials have quietly been pursuing a major sports team for the past year. Harris said he met with NBA and NHL officials this spring to tout the area as a viable marketplace and was told that once an arena is built, a city becomes very attractive to teams looking to move. He said he’s been told of several teams that could relocate to the area, although he declined to specify which ones or say which NBA or NHL representatives he met with.

He suggested the opportunity to lure a pro team to Virginia is a once-in-a-lifetime event. He said economic development officials must make a recommendation to the council on whether to pursue an arena in the next 60 days, in part, because of competitive concerns with other cities as well as to get in line for possible state funding.

“This is a small window of opportunity, and I mean very small,” Harris said. “If we can’t make a decision within 60 days I think then the ultimate decision will be we can’t do it.”

It’s unclear what state support would be needed to land an arena and a team, but Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell indicated his willingness to help. He filmed a segment for Tuesday’s presentation saying, “We’re ready for major league sports. The time is right.”

Under the proposal, the Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment company Comcast-Spectacor would lease and manage the arena for 25 years. Comcast-Spectacor owns the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey, and the Wells Fargo Center.

Harris said the Virginia Beach and Richmond areas together represent a designated market area of 3 million people.

Although Virginia Beach and Richmond are about 100 miles apart, Harris said that’s similar to the distance between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, home to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Economic development officials noted that data from the Virginia Beach Amphitheater shows that 18 percent of that venue’s customers are already from the Richmond area, which indicates they’re willing to drive two hours through some of the state’s most congested roads for entertainment.

No specific pro franchises were mentioned during Tuesday’s meeting, although Comcast-Spectacor would be responsible for pursuing the primary tenant.

“I have met with various officials with the NBA and NHL just to make them aware that this may be a possibility and that we’d be getting back to them with further detail,” Peter Luuko, president of Comcast-Spectacor told reporters following Tuesday’s meeting. “Really the detail was in selling the marketplace and this is a big market that is underserved right now.”

It’s also a market with little competition. There isn’t another major league team within a 200-mile radius and no major college conference athletic program is within 175 miles.

Harris also said the arena might serve as a host site to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s basketball tournament as well as concerts and other special events. Harris said while it is feasible that an arena could survive without an NBA or NHL team as its primary tenant, the goal is to have one lined up before moving forward with construction.

The presentation says the arena would draw 1.4 million annual visitors and host over 200 annual events, creating an economic impact of $98 million in its first year.

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