How The DCU Center Helped Worcester Become The Hottest Metropolitan City In New England (Hint: Success Doesn’t Just Happen)

John Harrity – Vice President
May 2019

The DCU Center opened as the Centrum in September 1982 with the hottest entertainer at the time – Mr. Frank Sinatra and the morning newspaper headline proclaimed “No More Little Town Blues”. Thirty-seven years later, the venue’s value to the community has been demonstrated consistently in many areas. But that doesn’t happen without a plan, flexibility, solid execution and excellent stewardship.

With 2 significant renovations and the addition of the Convention Center in 1997, the City of Worcester through the Civic Center Commission has remained committed to ensuring the viability of the venue. In the first decade, it was evident that the Centrum was significantly improving the brand of the City. With major entertainment acts frequenting the venue, oftentimes for multiple nights, the Centrum and the City of Worcester became the destination for music lovers throughout New England.Those who may have just pass through while traveling on interstate 90 or 290 were now arriving to Worcester by the thousands.

Worcester’s successful arena was overshadowing Boston’s aging Boston Garden. The Garden’s only competitive advantage was its larger capacity. Thus, in 1987, the City of Worcester, through the Civic Center Commission, funded a seating expansion adding 2,500 seats to the Centrum to match the Boston Garden’s capacity which kept the Centrum’s competitive edge as the newer, air-conditioned alternative in the greater Boston market. At the same time, the City, through the Commission, took the opportunity to improve the exterior aesthetics of the facility by adding a new façade and, on the interior, 2 corporate suites.

With these improvements, Worcester and the Centrum continued to bask in the venue’s success through the early 1990’s when Boston began the process to replace their aging facility. In 1995, what is now known as the TD Garden opened with great fanfare boasting 19,950 seats-more than 5,000 seats larger than the Worcester Centrum – a number that could not be matched by Worcester without building a new facility. Concerts began migrating to downtown Boston to the larger facility.

During this time, the City of Worcester through the stewardship of the Civic Center Commission and their professional management firm, SMG, assessed the future of the Centrum arena and the current state of the live music business. The number of venues in the greater Boston market, as well as New England, had exploded with more buildings in the pipeline. The music and recording business had changed dramatically with the digital music revolution. Iconic artists were aging and new talent was slow to emerge. Worcester had built a strong brand for live entertainment but the landscape was changing rapidly.

With its central location in Massachusetts and New England along with an excellent road network, Worcester was a perfect location for a regional Convention Center. After several years of planning, Worcester broke ground on a 50,000 square foot exhibit hall with associated ballroom and meeting room space in 1994. To capitalize on the solid management from SMG, provide for shared resources and staffs, and to share the brand that had already been well established by the arena, the new Worcester’s Centrum Centre opened in the Fall of 1997. The first year of operation far exceeded all expectations set by independent feasibility studies and continued to grow year after year.

The Convention Center provided new energy to the downtown environs and the hospitality industry in Worcester. The Convention Center’s direct economic impact through the purchase of goods and services in addition to the expansion in staffing was coupled with increased hotel occupancy and overall spending by attendees at conventions, meetings and trade shows throughout Worcester.

Year over year, the Convention Center dates continued to grow. The “flat shows” that had previously been hosted in the arena – Home Shows, Auto Shows, Flower Shows, RV Shows, etc. – were able to move to the newly constructed Convention Center Exhibit Hall which freed up dates in the Arena. These additional dates created an opportunity to lure both an Arena Football team and an American League Hockey team to the City of Worcester. While Arena Football only lasted one season (1994 with the Mass Mauraders), AHL hockey had a run of 20 years with 2 separate teams. Currently, arena football is back with the National Arena League (NAL) fielding a team, the Massachusetts Pirates. In addition, the East Coast Hockey League’s (ECHL) team, Worcester Railers calls the DCU Center home. Both teams are in their second year.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s significant development occurred around the Centrum. Saint Vincent’s hospital relocated to downtown adjacent to the venue, the Hilton Garden, Major Taylor Boulevard Garage and the State Courthouse were all constructed in the same one block area; MCPHS located a branch campus in downtown Worcester buying and renovating many of the buildings in the area; and, ultimately, the Factory Outlet Mall was shuttered and reborn as City Square.

To identify additional revenue streams for the Centrum to continue to support itself with necessary capital replacements and improvements, the Civic Center Commission authorized SMG to market the venue for naming rights. In October 2004, SMG was successful in securing Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU) for a 10-year naming rights agreement which was subsequently renewed for an additional 10 years in 2014. In addition, the Civic Center Commission implemented a facility surcharge on tickets which was becoming more common in venues of this size. The facility surcharge was put in place to assist with a variety of venue improvements.

While the DCU Center (Centrum) has always been strong financially with a typical annual operating profit between $500,000 and $1,000,000, both the arena and convention center systems had become outdated or had exceeded their useful life. Newer venues were also offering a range of amenities not found in facilities that were built in 1982 and 1997 respectfully. With the urging of the City of Worcester and the Civic Center Commission, the State Legislature and Governor created a Special Finance District (DIF) that would allow the City to undertake key capital improvements and renovations to the DCU Center to retain and elevate the venue’s competitive edge in the industry. These improvements were to be self-supporting, as revenues from the net new State hotel meals and sales tax from this Special Finance District were to be re-directed and re-invested to meet the annual payments on the loan authorizations for the DCU Center capital improvements.

Since 2011, the Civic Center Commission has guided a thoughtful multi-phased capital improvement plan on behalf of the City of Worcester which continues as of today. The initial, $8.5 million, included physical plant improvements in preparation of future phases. The electrical vault was relocated and tripled in size to provide greater capacity and redundancy in electrical power which was immediately needed but also to support future improvements. Additionally, a complete renovation of the ice floor, ice plant and hockey systems were completed as well as, replacement of the Convention Center carpet and improvements to the primary arena loading doors.

The next phase, completed in 2014, provided for the largest renovation to date in the arena including the realignment of Foster Street which allowed for the south wall to be extended outbound by 16 feet to create space to accommodate a re-designed box office/lobby, four new executive suites, new restrooms and a club area on the primary concourse. Exterior work on the expanded section was designed to complement the Convention Center’s architecture along with the many improvements which were beginning to take place in the environs. Landscaping was softened to provide a more welcoming footprint.

During this renovation, improvements were made to the aging arena infrastructure including a new chiller plant, event exhaust system, emergency generator, enhanced fire protection, and upgraded graphics and paint on the concourse. Structural repairs were made to the foundation, roof and frames. This phase totaled just over twenty-three million dollars.

In 2016, the Civic Center Commission, the City of Worcester, and SMG agreed that a full facility assessment and the development of a master plan should be the next steps in the evolution of the DCU Center. Populous, a global architectural and design firm specializing in arenas and convention centers, was retained to undertake the work. This resulted in a comprehensive review of every system, the structure, the architecture, and the equipment in the facility with a detailed report including the current conditions, recommendations on future repairs and replacement of outdated equipment.

In addition, Populous was tasked with reviewing the venue as it compares to current best practices for new arenas along with areas to improve to meet the requirements of both event planners and attendees in the 21st century. Also reviewed was the DCU Center’s connection to the environs with the goal of maximizing its positive impact to the surrounding neighborhood.

This work product will now assist with charting the course for additional investments in the DCU Center as well as potential development in the surrounding area. An additional twenty million dollars has been identified to proceed with certain projects. One identified immediately was the installation of a state of the art, redundant internet and WIFI system in both the arena and convention center for a three-million-dollar investment. Other shortlisted projects include renovations to the convention center electrical vault, roof repairs, airwall replacements, ADA improvements, telephone system upgrade, locker and dressing room improvements, replacement of ballroom chairs, replacement of arena seating, seat decking and the sound system among other items.

After meetings with stakeholders, City officials, the Civic Center Commission and SMG, a conceptual master vision was provided by Populous for the long-term future of the complex. The Civic Center Commission and the City will continue to work toward identifying a developer and various funding to continue to move forward with expanding the venue. In the immediate future, the focus will be on ensuring repairs, replacements, and upgrades are completed so that the venues remain competitive.

It has been 37 years since the Arena opened its doors and 22 years for the Convention Center.The continued success of both venues is a credit to the Civic Center Commission, the City of Worcester and the private management firm, SMG. The value that both venues have brought to the City of Worcester in the last four decades is unmeasurable.

Since 1993, I have had the honor across two terms of being a member of the Worcester Civic Center Commission and being named their chairman twice. The Civic Center Commission is responsible for the care, custody, and control of the facility.

As a commercial real estate broker, I have been involved with leasing not only office space, but also selling office condos to businesses which came to Worcester from the Boston/Metro West area. These clients came because they have heard and seen so much of the revitalization of downtown Worcester.

The addition of hotels, restaurants, housing, and retail has helped the DCU Center as well. Patrons coming to our venue get to see first-hand how much Worcester has changed from “that old tired mill town” to expanding into a vibrant metropolitan city.

I would like to think that the DCU Center has something to do with Worcester’s newfound success!

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Should you have any questions about this article – or any commercial real estate matter – please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or call me at 508-635-6798.

2019-08-27T19:27:43+00:00