Traveling east on Ninth Street gives Coralville visitors a glance of past and present — for now.
On the north side of the street in the Iowa River Landing stands a glistening University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics facility, a rooftop bar and shops to buy wedding dresses and cupcakes and get a massage, complete with brick sidewalks and perfect rows of trees. But a look to the south provides a window into the past with views of an empty dirt lot, windowless backs of industrial buildings and a chain-link fence entangled with weeds.
The scoops of dirt by city officials and their project partners at a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday kicked off construction of the Iowa Arena project, which soon will transform that area into the final anchor — a $190 million reinvestment in Iowa River Landing and a decadeslong effort to better Coralville’s gateway for visitors entering from Interstate 80.
When it opens, the project will include a 5,100-seat arena, the Iowa Fitness and Sports Performance Institute, a field house and hotel and museum space.
And its opening will add a new layer of competition for several venues in the region already going after concert and event bookings — including the arena in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Iowa River Landing looked like a much different place 30 years ago. Instead of new hotels, apartments and shops, visitors from I-80 would see a blighted area with an industrial park, scrap yard, truck stop, strip club and adult bookstore.
In the late 1980s, Coralville put together a community planning committee, which was tasked with rethinking the city’s appearance.
“It was certainly not what the community wanted your first impression to be of Coralville when you came in off Interstate 80 to visit the hospital or go to the University of Iowa or go shopping in Coralville. In fact, you probably couldn’t have designed a less attractive gateway into the community,” Coralville Mayor John Lundell said at the groundbreaking.
The city spent the following years buying up land to piece together the Iowa River Landing plot and cleaning up contaminations from the ground.
Coralville had hoped for three anchor tenants to spur development in the area — a retailer, a hotel with a convention center and an entertainment venue. An early front-runner for the entertainment space was an indoor rain forest, which finally went by the wayside after city officials became skeptical of the developers’ lack of private funding.
The area saw its first anchor open in August 2006 with the Coralville Marriott and Conference Center, followed by Von Maur in 2013.
Since the opening of the Marriott, the community has seen tens of millions of dollars spent by visitors, said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“‘If you build it, they will come,’ as the old baseball movie saying goes. And the city of Coralville built that conference center and hotel and, boy, have they come to benefit of all area businesses. That project represented the beginning of the Iowa River Landing Reinvestment District,” Schamberger said.
The Iowa Arena project itself has been in the works for a number of years, with city officials first completing a pre-application in 2015 for funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Reinvestment District program.
After many meetings with the state authority and securing $200,000 from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, the Iowa Arena project was awarded $12 million by the development authority in June 2016.
More recently, the city formed ArenaCo, a nonprofit community development corporation, to build the arena.
“This vision … it was a big dream. It was amazing. I’m not going to say I doubted it because I didn’t doubt it, but I wondered at what point we would start to realize it, we would start to see it. Once the Marriott went up, and then we started seeing the restaurants and the hotels, wow,” said UI Athletic Director Gary Barta at the ceremony this week.
UI athletics already has signed on as a tenant for its women’s volleyball home matches beginning in 2020. Brian Hixenbaugh, general manager of the Iowa Arena, said he imagines working more with the university in the future.
“We’d love to expand on that relationship. We don’t know what that means yet necessarily,” Hixenbaugh said.
A LOOK AHEAD
Although being called the Iowa Arena project throughout its planning process, that won’t be the facility’s name much longer. ArenaCo has sold naming rights to help pay for the project and will announce the new name in the near future.
The project’s opening date and first event are still to be determined, Hixenbaugh said. Staff are hoping to see it open in late 2019 or early 2020.
Hixenbaugh works for a company called Spectra, which was hired to manage the day-to-day operations, like bookings and ticket sales, of the Iowa Arena project.
Spectra also manages the Iowa Events Center, which includes Wells Fargo Arena, in downtown Des Moines.
With that relationship comes a possibility to share shows or events.
“Those relationships that we have there, we are expanding on those, Hixenbaugh said. “We’re never going to do a 12,000-capacity show. That’s just not who we are and what we do and we get that. But certainly there are family shows, there are some of the smaller concerts and promoters who are doing those that already have relationships in the market or in the state that we certainly look to expand on and drive a little activity over to here.”
The Iowa Arena will be the second in the Corridor behind Cedar Rapids’ U.S. Cellular Center, which was renovated and reopened in 2013 and has 9,000-plus seats.
The Cedar Rapids arena is only about a half-hour’s drive from where Coralville’s is underway.
“There’s going to be competition. There’s always competition,” Hixenbaugh said — pointing to the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort to the south and the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill., to the east.
“Certainly we want it to be amicable and friendly and understand that there are going to be some events that we’re probably both going to go after. But then there’s an amphitheater over there, and we can’t compete with going outside” at the McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids.
Mike Silva, executive director of the U.S. Cellular Center, said Coralville and Cedar Rapids are in the same media market so no concert would play both venues near the same time.
“Our communities, however, are slightly different and each will respond a little better to different genres of musical acts,” Silva said in an email. “It is inevitable that on occasion both arenas will compete for the same shows, and I am hoping that this process will not bid up the price of the acts and impact our patrons with higher ticket prices.”
Iowa Arena project organizers also are hoping to add another aspect similar to what Cedar Rapids has — a minor league hockey team, specifically from the United States Hockey League or the East Coast Hockey League.
The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, a USHL team, and the city earlier this year agreed to a 15-year lease extension, keeping the team in Cedar Rapids.