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Published: Friday, 4/16/2010

Downtown Toledo arena gets a new name; bank agrees to purchase rights for $2.1 million

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Six months after opening its doors to rave reviews, the $105 million Lucas County Arena is no more.

Tthe home of the Toledo Walleye and downtown Toledo's premier indoor entertainment venue has a new name starting Friday: Huntington Center.

Officials from Toledo Arena Sports Inc. and Lucas County joined with top executives from Huntington Bancshares Inc. Friday morning to announce that the Columbus-based bank has agreed to purchase the naming rights to the 8,000-seat venue for $2.1 million.

“We believe this is a great opportunity for us to show our commitment to northwest Ohio,” said Sharon Speyer, Huntington's regional president in northwest Ohio.

Huntington Chief Executive Stephen D. Steinour was to be on hand for the ceremony.

The name will mark only the second facility besides a bank to bear the Huntington name — the other is Huntington Park in Columbus, home of the Columbus Clippers minor league baseball team.

“This is an investment in our community. We believe this is a significant commitment on behalf of the company to invest in northwest Ohio,” said Ms. Speyer, herself a native Toledoan.

The six-year, $2.1 million naming rights and sponsorship agreement to be executed today includes three renewal options of six years each, and could mean total Huntington payments of $11 million. The proceeds will go toward paying down the arena's $90 million debt.

On an annualized basis, the naming rights sale is larger than the $5 million paid by Fifth-Third Bancorp in 2002 to place its name on the home of the Toledo Mud Hens for 15 years. Fifth Third Field is a block away from the Walleye hockey team home.

The ceremony Friday morning looked more like a boisterous wedding reception than a logo unveiling. About 140 Huntington employees were on-hand, having been told they were going down to the arena for a special training session, only to find their company's name chalked on sidewalks across downtown.

And when they got inside, they were feted with food and drink, and even a lightshow on the ice.

“It's with a sense of pride that we hand it off,” county commission President Pete Gerken told about 200 people gathered for the announcement, with fellow commissioner Tina Skeldon-Wozniak standing next to him.

“For us, Tina and I are like the parents. This is a ‘father and mother of the bride day' for us, because we're handing off the daughter to an excellent partner — a partner that will treat the facility like a perfect public-private partnership.”

Steve Steinour, Huntington's chief executive officer, said the company's sponsorship “is a long-term investment in Toledo and northwest Ohio. This is a big investment for us.”

Joe Napoli, president and general manager of the Toledo Walleye and the Toledo Mud Hens, said: . “We're very appreciative and thankful that [Huntington] made this commitment, and certainly thankful that they did so in these economic times. We're very excited.”

Opened in the fall of 2009, the arena has had a spectacular initial run, drawing high praise from patrons during the inaugural season of the Walleye hockey team and — just as importantly — attracting big-name entertainment acts like Elton John, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood. Ms. Speyer said that success is something that is attractive to Huntington, which has the largest amount of local deposits of any financial institution in the region at $2.2 billion.

“This is both a naming rights and sponsorship agreement, because it's really more than putting our name on a building,” Ms. Speyer said, explaining that the bank will distribute 1,000 free Walleye tickets per year to local nonprofit groups and those who otherwise couldn't afford to attend the games.

But moreover, she said, “We believe it is a great platform for economic development.”

She cited the number of local bars and restaurants that have sprung up downtown in recent months — despite a very weak economy — as evidence that the arena is having a positive economic effect.

“We're starting to see it now: People are coming to Huntington Center to take advantage of the entertainment, they go out to eat, they frequent the local businesses that are around,” Ms. Speyer said. “We're starting to see some development — and we believe that is really good for downtown Toledo, and a strong downtown is vital for the success of northwest Ohio.

“And candidly, it's good for Huntington. It's a great branding opportunity, and it's a great way for our [employees] to entertain customers and to create memorable moments.”

Huntington's overall commitment, should it decide to exercise all of its subsequent options, is almost identical to the $12 million it agreed to pay in 2006 for 23 years of naming rights at Huntington Park in Columbus, where the Clippers play their home games.

Discussions over the naming rights for the arena have been ongoing since well before the arena opened, Mr. Napoli said. At one point, there were as many as three potential main sponsors, then Huntington emerged on top.

While county officials initially hoped to secure a larger donation for naming rights, the arena's timing couldn't have been worse. It opened six months ago amid a horrific downturn in the local and national economies, as the construction, automotive, and financial sectors all struggled to regain their footing after the near collapse of the nation's economy in 2008.

Indeed, Huntington itself took $1.4 billion from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program in late 2008 to shore up its own balance sheet. That money has yet to be repaid, but Ms. Speyer said, “We believe that the bank is well-positioned to pay back TARP. We have raised capital, and our balance sheet is healthy, and we are sensitive to that issue. But we believe it's important for us to move forward, and we believe we have an obligation to make investments in our communities to make our communities thrive.”

Rob Prazmark, president of 21 Marketing Inc., a consulting firm based in Greenwich, Conn., is an expert on naming rights and the values they bring to those who buy them. Some companies, he said, have been criticized for spending millions to put their names on sports venues, but those firms recoup that expenditure and more in free publicity when events and games are held there.

“If you put the impressions that this bank will get on all of the events at the venue, it will pay for itself 10 or 15 times over,” Mr. Prazmark said. “It's about customer loyalty. It says that they are committed to the area and that they're going to be around for a long time.”

Steve Miller, general manager of Toledo Arena Sports Inc., which operates the arena, said new Huntington logos and signage would likely appear on the building within 10 weeks. In the meantime, temporary signs and banners will herald the new name and the association with Huntington.

The Huntington Center and the adjacent Seagate Convention Centre, both of which operate under Mr. Miller, have 32 full-time employees and 150 to 200 part-time employees. The organization's budget is about $5 million.

Mr. Miller also said Huntington's larger regional reach will help both facilities to be successful.

“It's going to be a great partnership. They're not only going to help us from a naming rights outlook, but also from a marketing perspective,” he said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:lvellequette@theblade.comor 419-724-6091.



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