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These article by David McDonough was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 27, 1999. All rights reserved.
From a Vision, the Arena Becomes Reality
The wait is over. The rubberneckers are gone; so are
the abandoned buildings that mocked the South Ward of Trenton for
so long. Drivers exiting Route 1 at the Route 129 exit become vaguely
aware, out of the corner of the eye, of something looming just beyond
the roadway. Then they turn the corner, and there it is. The Sovereign
Bank Arena, in its $60 million — give or take a million —
glory, is a reality. Its doors officially opened on October 2, in
a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Governor Whitman and Mayor Douglas
Palmer, and complete with Mercer County Executive Robert Prunetti
riding a Zamboni, and Mercer County freeholder Jim McManimon, Prunetti’s
opponent in the November election, lavishing praise on the new facility,
which has already become a campaign issue.
The arena hosted its first visitors a few days later when Hardcore
Holly, Mankind, and other fierce soldiers of the World Wrestling Federation
came to town. And if the parking situation was, initially, a bit of
a mess, who cared? For the first time in years, people are flocking
to the state capital year ’round.
The Sovereign Bank Arena, at the corner of South Broad Street and
Hamilton Avenue, just off Route 129, owes its existence to several
factors. First, Mercer County Waterfront Park, the starting point
on the road to Trenton’s projected economic recovery, had been an
immediate success, drawing over 750,000 fans to watch minor league
baseball in its first two seasons, 1994 and 1995.
And second, entrepreneur Ron Berman had already begun to develop 35
acres of Chambersburg, where the famed Roebling Steel Works had once
stood, culminating in the Roebling Market, a 15-acre project complete
with the first supermarket in downtown Trenton in 25 years. Berman
was sure he stood a good chance of getting a minor league hockey team
to play in Trenton, provided a suitable facility could be built, and
he believed his land was the perfect spot. And finally, the capital
has just seen the renovation of the War Memorial, located, like Waterfront
Park, just a few blocks from the proposed site of the arena. Taken
together, the three structures would form what Prunetti calls the
"Trenton Opportunity Triangle".
"The idea is that development will occur around these points of
a triangle," Prunetti explains. "You don’t turn cities like
Trenton around overnight. For a long time, the strategy in Trenton
was to bring back heavy industry. Well, that’s not going to happen;
no city is bringing back heavy industry. So we had to change our strategy
to sports, entertainment, tourism. Trenton has became a destination
point. These projects are the catalyst, changing the public’s perception
of the city, and then you begin to change the perceptions of the investors;
and that’s where the private sector comes in and that’s where the
real economic benefit comes."
"There’s a great sense of personal satisfaction to see all the
energy spawned by this," says Ron Berman, a Trenton native who
is an alumnus of Trenton High, Rutgers (Class of 1953), and Rutgers
law school. Committed to urban development, he headed DKM Properties,
the firm that cut a huge swath in New Brunswick and Trenton corridor
in the 1980s. He developed the $18.8 million Roebling project and
this arena with his partner, Steve Cowen, former executive vice president
of Hartz Mountain Industries. "The arena was always more of a
vision than a possible reality," says Berman, "but about three
years ago we began to get a lot of support from the state, the county,
and the city, and it began to take on a momentum of its own."
In August of 1997, the Mercer County Board of Freeholders agreed that
Ron Berman would build a 10,000 seat, $42 million arena and sell it
back to the Mercer County Improvement Authority. In return the county
would earn revenue from leases with the sports teams and a percentage
of tickets sold. In addition the county could sell the name rights
to the new arena — a deal that has already been consummated with
Sovereign Bank, which has paid $2.7 million to have its name on the
facility for the next 10 years.
The initial deal was supposed to be complete in time for the 1998
East Coast Hockey League season. The schedule didn’t quite work out
that way, and the price tag went up when the city of Trenton bagged
spending $10 million to provide the parking lots around the arena,
deciding instead to concentrate its funds on a new hotel for the downtown
area. The county then took over the expense of the parking, too, and
eventually, state funding came through.
A number of architectural firms expressed interest in the project;
ultimately, Vitetta Group (now known simply as Vitetta) of Cherry
Hill got the job. The firm is known mainly for its design of educational,
health care and correctional buildings, as well as preservation architecture.
They had designed the Apollo Arena at Temple University, and, although
they are not the architects of record, had done some work on Waterfront
"We were brought in there to finish, to mop up," explains
Vitetta’s Stephen Carlidge, A.I.A. "Mop up" may be the operative
phrase considering the drainage problems the park had its first year.
Construction on the arena went much smoother.
"No problems out of the ordinary," notes Carlidge, who worked
closely with Berman’s choice of the Gilbane Construction company.
"In fact, getting it done in only 14 months was really quite a
feat. The only radical change was that we were unable to complete
the whole facade in brick, but we were still able to maintain the
industrial vernacular of the neighborhood. The objective is to look
as if the building has always been there."
That concept of blending into the surrounding environs has become
the standard in sports arenas located in urban areas. Oriole Park
at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in 1992, is the archetype;
Waterfront Park was consciously modeled after it. An indoor arena
takes it a step further.
Carlidge points out the strategy: "You limit the height of the
building by putting the concourse at street level, and having the
patrons walk down into the bowl of the arena. The effect is to make
it approachable to pedestrians leaving work or strolling over from
Originally, the hope was to save and restore three of the old factory
buildings in the immediate vicinity of the arena site. In fact, only
one building, known as No. 4, was in salvageable condition. The Mercer
County freeholders appropriated $1 million to preserve the brick exterior
of this block-long building, across from the arena, with the hope
that it can be renovated for commercial use.
Adding to the arena’s air of authenticity is the 15-foot high steel
wire-making machine that looms up in the corner of the outside plaza.
It’s a tribute to the days when John Roebling designed and built some
of the great bridges of the 19th century, including the Brooklyn Bridge
and the Golden Gate. More than that, it serves as a reminder of Trenton’s
rich past as one of the leading industrial cities of the Northeast,
and the stones surrounding the monument bear the names of many of
the workers who walked each day over that very spot.
Entering the arena, then, is like being thrust out of the past and
hurtled into a state-of-the-art present. The arena boasts 34 luxury
boxes (TV! Wet bars!), 1,150 club seats with waitress service, two
restaurants, and a wide variety of concession stands. Bathrooms are
plentiful and clean, and there is a family bathroom, where a parent
can comfortably take an opposite-sex toddler or change an infant in
privacy. General seating is comfortable, with plenty of leg room,
and sight lines are good throughout the building.
One great showpiece is the multi-million dollar video scoreboard and
sound system. If you miss the action on the ice because of the guy
in front of you who suddenly stood up, you can always look up and
see what’s going on. If the play was exciting enough, you might see
it again on re-play.
So far, the arena itself has received raves from the public; the 10
parking lots, some several blocks away, have been less well reviewed.
The initial gridlock of opening night does seem to abate with each
event. The arena’s main tenant is the Trenton Titans of the East Coast
Hockey League. Titans owner Geoff Berman, Ron Berman’s son, is not
unduly concerned about the parking.
"It takes awhile for people to be aware of where to park,"
says Berman. "They need to familiarize themselves with the locations
of the lots, and clearly the arena should, and is in the process of,
putting up larger signs." And last week’s ticket holders for the
big John Mellencamp concert had no problem finding $5 parking.
Geoff Berman and his two brothers grew up in Trenton; he went to Lawrenceville
School, Wharton, and Stanford law school. A former federal prosecutor,
he left a Wall Street practice to join his father in the real estate
firm. He admits that, at age 40, the chance to run a pro sports franchise
was one of the enticements to join the family business. He is bullish
on the facility and his club’s chance of success. "The economics
of an arena are such that, unless your main tenant is a hockey team,
it’s very difficult to make a go of it," says Berman. "Hockey
has more games than basketball (the Titans will play 35 home games).
In general, minor league hockey does better in attendance than minor
Just as the Thunder are a farm team for the big-league Boston Red
Sox, the Titans are affiliated with both the Philadelphia Flyers and
the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. Big league hockey
gets its players from a number of sources, but the odds are very good
that Flyers fans will see some former Titans at the First Union Center
before long. Judging from the number of Flyers jerseys in the sell-out
crowd for the Titans’ October 15 home opener, the tie-in was a shrewd
move for Trenton. The October 16 game was less well attended, a fact
that Berman attributes in part to a misconception on the public’s
part. "Because our sales have gone so well, people think we are
sold out, but we have at least 2,000 great seats available for each
game." The arena seats 8,000 for a hockey game.
The arena’s second constant is the Trenton Shooting Stars of the new
International Basketball League. Owned by Herbert Greenberg, CEO of
the Mount Lucas Road-based personnel consulting company, Caliper,
the Shooting Stars are an independent team in an independent league,
without big-league affiliation, and this may account for their less
active ticket sales. The Titans have sold about 5,000 season tickets;
the Shooting Stars, about half as many. Many sports writers feel that
the Shooting Stars, who open their home season November 27, will have
a tough time competing with central New Jersey collegiate basketball,
and in fact the arena hopes to attract college and high school ball,
particularly at tournament time.
Already scheduled is a Rutgers-Rider men’s basketball game on Saturday,
November 20, and the Northeast Conference college tournament in March,
which will determine the conference’s entrant in the NCAA tournament.
Stars president Harry Weltman, former general manager of the New Jersey
Nets, says that the IBL is about the equivalent of Triple-A minor
league baseball, one step below the big leagues. He is optimistic
about the league’s chances.
"I love this arena," he says. "It’s small enough to be
intimate, and give kids a chance to be close to the players, but large
enough for a significant profit potential. And I think a lot of people
will be surprised at the quality of our play."
The arena expands to over 10,000 for concerts and special events,
and there are plenty of both on hand. Upcoming dates include concerts
by Shania Twain (Friday, November 26), ice shows, a rodeo, a monster
truck show in January, and Barney the purple dinosaur, in February.
Although hockey and basketball are the mainstays of the arena, it
is as a political football that the facility makes the most news these
days. The arena, the parking areas around it, and the economic growth
of the area have become significant issues in the race for Mercer
"I welcome the arena," Democratic candidate McManimon says.
"The reason that it has become an issue is that it was proposed
as a $39 million project, with Trenton providing the parking. A month
later, the county executive came back and said that `Trenton would
not be able to provide the parking, so I need more money.’ So we are
stuck with scatter-site parking. I don’t want parking all the way
around the arena on both sides of the street. We want to encourage
developers to move businesses in there and complement the arena. I
think that next year, whether it’s Bob Prunetti or myself, we’re going
to build a parking deck down there."
Prunetti’s response is: "Even though the parking costs were $9
million, the revenue we receive from the parking pays for it. Traffic
circulation is much better with scattered parking than with a structure.
Our engineering studies said that a parking structure would take 40
or 50 minutes to empty; right now, we get people out in 20 to 25.
We hope to bring a developer in, and then do a parking plan in concert
with the developer. We are probably several years away from some kind
of a parking deck."
Whether the Sovereign Bank Arena holds one of the keys, to Trenton’s
economic future remains to be seen. One thing is certain: thousands
of people have already streamed through the doors of the arena, and
liked it, and talked about coming back. Trenton may soon have a major
hotel; there are two proposals for movie theaters where there have
And for the first time in a long time, spurred by the talk of economic
growth, Trenton now has a MacDonald’s to go along with its new sports
arena. Big Macs and guys on ice — what more could any city want?
General information, 609-656-3222. Ticketmaster, 609-520-8383.
Member of the East Coast Hockey League. Individual tickets through
opener against the Baltimore is Saturday, November 27. For season
ticket sales, call 609-252-8962. Individual tickets on sale in early
November. Call Ticketmaster, 609-520-8383.
129. The arena is on the right, at Hamilton Avenue.
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