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A Downtown Raleigh Arena for the Carolina Hurricanes Isn’t A Necessity

A suburban arena in a suburban region was the right spot for the Carolina Hurricanes when PNC Arena was built, and it remains so today.

Gensler Sports/North Carolina FC

This isn’t my contribution to the Hot Take-a-Thon, but it might qualify as a hot take nonetheless:

PNC Arena is just fine where it is, and the Carolina Hurricanes don’t need to play in downtown Raleigh to be successful.

Like plenty of other sports fans in the Triangle, I was excited to see the the plans unveiled Wednesday for a new soccer-specific stadium at the north end of downtown Raleigh that, if built, will serve as the home ground for North Carolina FC and the North Carolina Courage, and hopefully springboard NCFC’s entry into Major League Soccer. It would be a great addition to a long-neglected part of downtown, but almost as soon as the location was revealed the buckets of cold water began filling up:

  • The proposed stadium site is on state government land, meaning the General Assembly would need to sign off on any sale or lease agreement. They were given the plan on Tuesday, one day before it was revealed to the public. Given that half the time the General Assembly can’t agree on what day it is, getting them to eagerly jump at this proposal seems hopelessly naive.
  • And, to that end, it took all of a day before Charlotte legislators started harrumphing about how the NCGA shouldn’t give Charlotte the shaft in favor of helping Raleigh. Never change, North Carolina politics.
  • The plan requires demolishing multiple state government buildings, including the monolith known as the Archdale Building. This was a priority under the McCrory administration, but has seen very little momentum since Gov. Roy Cooper took office.
  • The location of the stadium would require significant infrastructure investment from the city of Raleigh, which would have no control over the plan (since the city cannot control planning on state property) but has its own idea for where a theoretical sports facility should go: on the other side of downtown. Oh.

Which brings us to the Hurricanes and the regular lamenting that the team plays in a nondescript arena in the suburbs with no character and little scenery other than an expansive parking lot.

All of which is true. But it’s still the right place for the Hurricanes.

Please recall why PNC Arena is where it is in the first place. It was in the cards years before the Canes left Hartford, as an arena for N.C. State basketball. When the Hurricanes entered the picture, they contributed more than a third of the cost of the arena, mostly to get it up to the standards required of an NHL facility. But by the time they came to the table, the location was already set: next door to Carter-Finley Stadium, on state land, in an area where N.C. State already had plenty of property available to it.

Putting an N.C. State arena downtown was always a pipe dream, especially in the mid 1990s when downtown Raleigh was, to be kind, a barren wasteland. A quarter of the city’s population has moved here in the eleven years since Fayetteville Street was reopened to traffic in July 2006, and has no recollection of a downtown area that closed for business at 5:00 every day.

It’s also worth pointing out that, as a government and university town with comparatively little industry for most of its existence, Raleigh’s population explosion since 1960 has been largely suburban in nature. Not many cities have a full beltway at a roughly four-mile radius from the center of the city, but Raleigh does - and that’s because, when it was first built in the 1960s, what’s now I-440 was the outer edge of the city.

Really. Here’s a map of the Raleigh city limits in 1960.

Mike Legeros

Raleigh, God love it, is the world’s biggest suburb. There’s nothing wrong with that; nearly half a million people live in the city, and that doesn’t happen because it’s a terrible place to be.

But wouldn’t an arena planned 20 years ago, in a city with no downtown atmosphere to speak of at the time, located in a largely suburban region, make sense in...the suburbs? Given that Raleigh has little public transit of consequence - and had next to none when PNC was in the initial planning phase in the mid-1990s - a car-focused arena located just off a freeway within shouting distance of two interstates was a no-brainer.

To that end, WakeMed Soccer Park, the current home of NCFC and the Courage that opened in 2002, is in Cary. Again: it’s a suburban location for a sports complex that made sense at the time.

Feel free to complain - rightly - about the lack of things to do around PNC. It would be great if there was an entertainment district of some sort. But tailgating is as much a part of the culture of the Hurricanes as anything, and there’s no way it would exist in the same form without the parking lot being just outside the arena doors.

The land across Edwards Mill Road where Cardinal Gibbons High School sits sure would be nice for development, but that’s out of the question for obvious reasons. Carter-Finley Stadium borders PNC to the east. To the north and south, state government land and the State Fairgrounds preclude any development, bar the small lot that plays host to Backyard Bistro and the Comfort Suites. In short, PNC is hemmed in.

Could a downtown Raleigh arena have served as a catalyst for development the way Fayetteville Street and the new convention center did just a few years later? Possibly, but that didn’t really concern N.C. State, which wanted an arena to compete with UNC’s Dean Smith Center and had a wide-open plot of land - available to it free of charge - on which to build it.

PNC isn’t the only NHL arena in a suburban location, and the others like it have largely the same lack of development nearby. The Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa has long been derided for its suburban location; likewise for Arizona’s Gila River Arena. The Honda Center in Anaheim sits smack in the middle of Orange County (Calif.), which is effectively one big suburb. Two others, American Airlines Center in Dallas and Buffalo’s KeyBank Center, are close but not close enough to their downtown areas, and both have had to rely on extensive development nearby to mitigate a similar arena-surrounded-by-parking-lot fate.

That’s the attitude that the Canes need to take with PNC. The arena’s location isn’t the problem; in fact, given the unique dynamics at play in this market, it’s probably more of a benefit than a liability. Perhaps potential new owner Chuck Greenberg could consider partnering with a developer to approach the state about building a small entertainment district across Wade Avenue on all of that state-owned land. The worst they could say is no.

And if that doesn’t happen, the same could be accomplished with significant renovations to the arena itself, an idea that’s been tossed around by the Centennial Authority on occasion over the past few years.

Putting an arena downtown is the right move for NCFC, but it would be the wrong move for the Hurricanes. It would move the team further away from a significant fanbase in western Wake County, make access infinitely more difficult, and could totally change the fan culture that’s built up around the team over the years.

PNC is in the right spot for this region. The Hurricanes are right where they need to be.