With 30 years under its belt, Thomas & Mack slated for $60 million in upgrades

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Sam Morris

A view of the concourse at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Planned renovations

  • Renovations to the Thomas & Mack Center are still being planned as UNLV officials wait for the state to sell its bonds to generate $47 million in capital funding. University officials also hope to secure additional money from slot tax revenue by spring of 2014. Here is what the renovations would entail:
  • Provide more Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant seating to meet ADA requirements.
  • Add more concourse restrooms to meet code requirements and demands.
  • Install new fire, safety and smoke control systems to meet code requirements.
  • Install new escalators and entryways to secondary entries to distribute building access, improve movement and relieve concourse of patron congestion.
  • Update 15-year-old concourse finishes and signage.
  • Replace original 30-year-old seating.
  • Replace remainder of original 30-year-old roofing.
  • Replace, refurbish and/or upgrade 30-year-old original mechanical, electrical, plumbing and low voltage systems.
  • Replace existing arena sound system.
  • Refurbish existing locker rooms.

Since it opened 30 years ago, the Thomas & Mack Center arguably has become one of the most storied and successful collegiate venues in the country.

Although there are larger venues, most college arenas host only about 15 or 18 basketball games and a number of university-related events each year.

Not the Mack.

Nearly 22 million people have visited UNLV's Thomas & Mack since 1983, brought there by Frank Sinatra, or Bono, or maybe a circus, rodeo, monster truck or ice skating show.

Last year, the arena hosted 180 events, attracting 800,000 visitors who infused more than $200 million into the local economy.

What has made the Thomas & Mack so successful?

Partly, it’s the 18,500 UNLV fans that pack the arena on major game nights, cheering on one of the top college basketball teams in the country. Their Re-bels, Re-bels chants are almost deafening, reverberating through the cavernous arena.

However, much of Thomas & Mack’s success is due to the allure of Las Vegas, which each year brings hundreds of high-profile events to the arena.

“It’s been a great 30 years,” said Mike Newcomb, Thomas & Mack’s executive director. “We’re lucky to be busy and lucky the university lets us operate like a professional facility. We try to bring a lot of events to Las Vegas to keep our building paid for and vital.”

When the Thomas & Mack Center opened Nov. 21, 1983, it was the only large-event indoor arena in Las Vegas. Before the Thomas & Mack, the Runnin’ Rebels played at a 6,300-seat arena in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

With its maximum seating capacity of 19,522, almost every major event coming to town was staged at the home of UNLV basketball: the Shark Tank, nicknamed after Hall of Fame coach Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian.

Today, it's no longer the only arena in town; the resort industry has built its own arenas near the Las Vegas Strip, including the Orleans Arena and the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and more arenas are being planned, such as MGM’s $350 million, 20,000-seat arena slated to open between New York-New York and the Monte Carlo in 2016. Even smaller venues, such as nightclubs and resort pools, host concerts and other events.

Today, the Mack concentrates on luring marquee events that return year after year.

“Our focus has changed over the years,” Newcomb said. “We’ve had to adapt as the city evolved.”

In particular, the arena has excelled in attracting events to Las Vegas during its slow months.

National Finals Rodeo, which next year celebrates its 30th year in Las Vegas, came from an effort by tourism officials to bring a major event to the city to cure its December doldrums. Last year, 170,000 people trudged through the Thomas & Mack’s doors over the rodeo’s 10 days.

“Bringing people to Las Vegas is important,” Newcomb said. “We rely on out-of-town guests.”

To keep attracting more visitors to the arena amid increasing competition from Strip arenas, UNLV officials are gearing up for nearly $60 million in renovations to the arena. Officials argue the renovations are necessary to keep the Thomas & Mack viable as a successful venue.

Top 5 non-UNLV events last year at the Thomas & Mack Center

  • National Finals Rodeo: 170,000 visitors over 10 days
  • Mountain West Basketball Tournament: 60,000 visitors over five days
  • Professional Bull Riders: 55,000 visitors over five days
  • Disney on Ice: 35,000 visitors over four days
  • USA Olympics Basketball exhibition: 16,000 visitors in one day

“The 30-year anniversary is a reminder to keep the Thomas & Mack current,” said Gerry Bomotti, UNLV senior vice president of finance. “Certainly, the 30 years is time to celebrate all the accomplishments, but it’s also time to recognize it’s not a good birthday for major electrical and plumbing systems.”

This year, UNLV officials successfully lobbied state lawmakers for $47 million in funding to renovate the facility. University officials hope to raise the remaining $13 million needed for renovations through the UNLV Foundation, which is launching a $500 million capital campaign to build a new UNLV stadium and medical school.

Most of the renovations won’t be discernible to the average fan. Major electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems will be replaced, and new fire alarm and security systems will be installed. The renovations also would bring the Thomas & Mack up to current building codes, including new regulations for Americans with Disabilities Act seating that weren’t set in 1983.

Other proposed changes to the Thomas & Mack may be more noticeable.

University officials plan to expand the concourse and add more restrooms, escalators and points of access to the arena to help congestion. New seats may be put into the lower bowl section, and if funds permit, the upper bowl seats may be replaced too.

If additional funds can be raised, Newcomb would love to see a roof replacement and more locker rooms and office space — perhaps even an addition that could house other amenities, like a club. Eye-catching amenities, like nightclubs and video screens, have been proposed for other stadium and arena projects in recent years.

“Obviously, we’d love to spend the money on fancy things like that,” Newcomb said. “But right now, a lot of the money will go into vital systems because if our electrical or fans break down, we’re not doing any shows. This is our house, so we’re going to have to spend money to make those things more efficient.”

New amenities or not, the Thomas & Mack has proven a reliable venue, officials said. It’s become a model not only for other arenas in town, but also for a new on-campus football stadium proposed for the corner of Harmon Avenue and Swenson Street.

Just like the Thomas & Mack gave way to more events, the UNLV stadium — if built — could spur bigger events to relocate to Las Vegas.

“Thirty years ago, the Thomas & Mack allowed the community to bring more events to Las Vegas. A big stadium would do that as well,” Bomotti said. “We look at the Thomas & Mack as a model for what a stadium can do for Las Vegas and UNLV.”

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