- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

MONROE, La. (AP) - Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo dropped two big surprises during the state of the city address Thursday: his plans to build a new arena, and that he is a distant cousin of entertainer Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson’s voice rang out through the Monroe Civic Center arena for the national anthem. Mayo said that’s likely the only time her voice would heard in the facility, unless he can pull some family strings.

A study that began last year reached the same conclusion. Where once the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley visited the city, now Monroe’s 7,500-seat arena is too small and too old to attract premier performers.

The study, prepared by city consultant M3A Architecture PLLC of Jackson, Miss., says Monroe has the ability to support a 9,000-to-10,000-seat arena, which could serve as a stimulus for more growth in the city. The study, which cost the city $95,000, showed a facility that could host the high-profile entertainers as well as major sporting events, like Mayo and other city developers envision.

“Our experience tells us that for the best return on its investment in this instance, Monroe may wish to consider the new arena as an anchor to, and as part of, a larger vibrant, lively new cultural, recreational, entertainment, and retail destination centered around a memorable, enduring, attractive, pedestrian-friendly outdoor place,” the study says.

The study says the demographics and market conditions of the city and the Monroe Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes much of northeastern Louisiana, suggest favorable conditions for the project.

Monroe is easily accessible to travelers. It has its own airport and is within reasonable distances of several others. The city also lies on both Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 165, which connects to Interstate 49 in Alexandria.

Monroe’s demographics show an unemployment rate that has returned to pre-recession numbers and still falls below the national average.

It’s also younger than the national average and can draw crowds from young audiences from the three nearby universities of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Louisiana Tech and Grambling State, which the study said would attract more attendees to events.

Mayo said the study’s findings are only the first step. Now that it’s been determined the region can support a facility, the next steps are to discuss whether the city’s leaders believe Monroe should move forward with a plan and to work on funding.

The study says the project would cost nearly $84 million. If the city decides to build, the location of the new arena could fall in a number of different locations.

Leaders of different economic districts in the city are for building the arena - but in their specific districts.

“Are we excited? You bet we are,” said Larry Bratton, chairman of the Downtown Economic Development District board.

The study’s most favorable locations all fell within the downtown area. Bratton shares the study’s top choice of building the arena near Walnut and Olive streets.

That location would not be as accessible to I-20, but the study said it would be highly visible and identifiable from the Ouachita River.

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