At first glance, it might appear overly ambitious for a county community college to build an arena and renovate a nearby facility to the tune of tens of millions of dollars when the sports teams that will play there are limited to two basketball teams and a volleyball squad. However, as it turns out, the decision to construct Harford Community College's APG Federal Credit Union Arena simply made good sense.
The arena -- home to the Fighting Owls men's and women's basketball teams and women's volleyball team -- opened its doors late in the fall of 2012. Since then, more than 300 events have been held there, from concerts and theatrical circuses to business meetings and consumer-product expos to high school graduations.
"The arena has opened up a lot of great opportunities, not only for the college, but for the community -- and that was its intention," Stacy Rutherford, general manager of the arena for the past two years, said.
The arena seats 2,500 people for basketball games, but more people can be accommodated for events in which visitors can be on the main floor, such as a home improvement expo. Maximum capacity is 3,000.
The arena, located on the college's campus in Bel Air, Md., had its genesis about a decade ago when school officials considered renovating an existing building at the school, the Susquehanna Center on Thomas Run Road. The Susquehanna Center, which has been around since 1968, is now largely devoted to fitness and physical education.
"The folks around the table at the time were discussing renovations to the Susquehanna Building," Rutherford said. "And around that table came the thought, ‘Well, what if during this renovation process we not only improve the existing building, but build an arena that would not only be a resource to the college but to the community as well?'"
While the process had its conceptual start in 2007, the going was slow at times. Eventually, the project was supported by Harford County government and approved by the state. The price tag was $26.7 million with the state putting up 57 percent of the money, the county providing 36 percent and Harford Community College contributing 7 percent.
Groundbreaking took place in August 2011, and the 19,000-square-foot arena opened its doors Nov. 15, 2012 with a basketball doubleheader featuring the Harford men's and women's teams -- each posted wins against Delaware County (Pa.) Community College.
About six weeks later, the arena enjoyed its first sellout, a performance by the always-popular Harlem Globetrotters.
Since then, the arena's menu of events have featured an eclectic mix of entertainment, such as county-western artist Trace Adkins, comedian Billy Gardell and the dog whisperer, Cesar Millan. An event that seems to always generate excitement is WWE NXT pro wrestling, which the arena hopes to have about twice a year.
Apart from Harford's own sports teams, athletic events at the arena have included gymnastics, martial arts and cheer competitions. Plus, this year eight public high school graduations will be held at the arena.
The arena also fulfills a community service role, exemplified by an upcoming event that will be a gathering to help provide the homeless with resources to improve their lives.
A significant part of Rutherford's job is to fill dates on the arena's calendar.
In fiscal year 2016 (June 2015-July 2016), the arena had 44 event days apart from the college's own activities. The following fiscal year, that number increased to 56 events outside of college activities, a 27 percent jump.
In addition to the college's own basketball and volleyball games, there are six weeks of summer camps organized by the college's athletic department.
Still, it's Rutherford's goal to increase those outside events by a similar 20-plus percent.
The nearby Susquehanna Center has helped add flexibility to the arena. For instance, some outside athletic events may require warm-up areas or perhaps a staging area for trophy presentations. The Susquehanna Center provides that ancillary space. And when an arena event forces a college sports practice to be moved, the additional gym space in the Susquehanna Center allows for an easy relocation.
The money that the college received from the state and county to build the arena does not have to be repaid, and Rutherford said it was a great financial boost to have APG Federal Credit Union sign on as the building's naming sponsor. That deal is worth $800,000 over 15 years, adding more than $50,000 to the arena's bottom line.
Still, the arena is a costly operation that is currently subsidized by the college, with Rutherford hoping to make the building financially self-sustaining in the next five years.
"In that case, if there were a profit in the future, I would look to carry forward those funds toward investment in facility improvements," she said.
In the meantime, there's plenty of work to be done as the variety of events the arena hosts require frequent reconfigurations.
"The arena is constantly re-inventing itself," Rutherford said.
Some events are national touring shows that the arena books, such as the winter-themed theatrical circus show Snowkus Pocus that was scheduled for Dec. 15. In other cases, the arena is rented to outside event planners who require the space for their own shows, expos or competitions.
Those types of groups, such as the ones that put on cheerleading or martial arts competitions, bring their own community of followers into the building. But when the arena hires the talent, the responsibility of selling tickets falls on arena staff.
"We really have to do a top-notch job of outreach to make sure people are aware of the shows that do take place in the arena," Rutherford said. " ... Hopefully, we bring in the artists and the talent that encourages people to spread the word and tell their friends about the tickets they just purchased.
"That part of the job requires a consistent focus on marketing and promoting the arena to make sure people are aware of all they can do on the college campus."
Issue 240: December 2017