Sunday Sit-Down: Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority Executive Director Dennis Magruder
– WesBanco Arena is nearing its 40th year. The city of Wheeling currently is proposing changes to the tax structure through a half-percent sales piggyback tax that would generate funds to upgrade the arena, along with other items. What upgrades here at the arena do you believe need done immediately?
Magruder: There’s several needs. … In the $2.3 million bond issue we did nine years ago now, we did some pretty critical things – new roof, new HVAC, some upgrades to the dressing rooms, some of the really critical infrastructure things. Since that time, we’ve had the OVAC come on as a partner, and through the efforts of the OVAC they’ve actually decorated the concourse areas here with museum-quality oak cases that were actually constructed in a unique partnership with the OVAC and the local carpenters’ union … as part of their training program. But I think that’s really upgraded the concourse.
Where we’re left, unfortunately, is that probably the worst part of our building is what you see when you walk in the front door. We sit down here on the waterfront, so we get all these heavy afternoon winds, we get those cold winter days, we get that red-hot sun shining on the front of the building throughout the day until the sun sets. So that’s really, over 36 years, created wear-and-tear on that glass and lobby area. That’s where we start. We want to replace that, come up with some different housing that’s not as subject to the changes in temperature. We’ve got that glass in a somewhat flat roof now, and due to the expansion and contraction with temperature … it continues to leak. So I think we have to look at a different design, and yet we want as much light as we can get obviously … a design that would allow us to create virtually an airlock so that when one door is open, the inner door is closed. Right now, you open the front door and that cold, wintry air blows right in, oftentimes freezing the floor surface on the inside where people are walking. The lobby would be number one. … A new lobby would certainly aesthetically improve the building, functionally improve the building, and be good for our customers.
… I also think a new, custom, center-hung, digital video board/scoreboard could be used for all events. And it would have to be custom – one of the things when we acquired (the current) video board from Wilkes-Barre, the reason it was dismantled, the board itself didn’t fit into this structure. The ceiling height wasn’t sufficient, the load bearing wasn’t sufficient. We’d have to get something that was custom that fit in here, and today they make that. … I think we’d want to do that.
The other thing, I think, if you look at the seating itself, we’re proud on one hand but anxious on the other to maybe get new seats. The seating you see in this building is 36 years old. We have two kinds of seating – the permanent seating, which is a polyurethane material, a plastic, it is so 1970s orange. It was great in 1970, but now virtually the plastic … is wearing thin, it’s wearing out, because of all the people that have been seated in those seats. … It’s time to replace those.
We also have our portable chairs, the folding chairs you see with a golden-orange covering, as well. The upholstery is wearing thin, the pads have disintegrated. Both from an aesthetic point of view and a customer comfort point of view, they really need to be replaced. That’s high on our priority list.
We also have our original staging, we use what they call Mitchell risers. The Mitchell company has been out of business for a number of years. We have three-by-eight pieces of risers, they’re up-and-down by hand for every event. We change the height and size of our stages constantly. Again, we’re proud, but we’re still using the original material, which I think speaks to the staff and their efforts to preserve what they have, but it’s probably time, with new state-of-the-art stages, now they are more electronic, the heights are adjustable, we’d certainly want to look at that.
– Any other upgrades the arena might experience?
Magruder: Technology is such a part of our business. Not only in video scoreboards, but in the advertising world, in some of the shows that want to come in and have expanded capabilities. We need to look at our overall use of technology. One addition – and one that our building is perfectly suited for – is what the industry calls a ribbon board. That’s a computer board that goes around the perimeter between the second and third deck, highly visible. … They are wonderful at sporting events. I think the Nailers would love to have it. And they work for other events. They work at banquets, and they work at Disney on Ice. Many of the shows coming in like PBR, like monster trucks, WWE, their question is do you have digital video boards, do you have ribbon boards? Many of the other venues they play have those, and they’ve found creative ways to use those to enhance their show.
There’s also our concession areas. We’ve tried to be very bare-bones about it, but they need upgrades. … That’s another major element that we’d like to look at.
We also would want to prioritize our upgrades, and I think we would give an edge to revenue-generation up front. I do think that ribbon boards and improvements to concession stands would not only be an investment, but there would be a return on those investments.
– What are some long-term goals for the arena?
Magruder: I think long-term goals include stability, and that includes growing our client and tenant base. … I know there’s been some talk over the years about whether we’re proud or we’re not proud the Wheeling Nailers are here, but I can tell you … we treasure the Wheeling Nailers. We treasure the fact that we are the oldest franchise in the ECHL now. We’re the smallest market, and we’re the oldest market. And my goal is that I want to see them be able to stay around. That’s becoming more difficult as cost of operations go up, as ticket prices go up, it’s tougher and tougher to draw the attendance they need.
… We had some pretty good times with indoor football, I don’t think a lot of people realize that for 10 years, we had different indoor football leagues here, most of that was successful. I personally would like to see that return in the future, but I think to do that, you have to have stable leagues. … Indoor football does not have the league stability that minor league hockey has had, at least in my opinion.
The other dream would be to continue the diversity. One of the things we’re most proud of, on a given week here, you can come and see monster trucks, Toughman boxing, what we’re going to call the blue collar events. Let’s remember who we are: this is the Ohio Valley, people here are tough, they work in mills, in mines, we’re blue collar people. We need blue collar entertainment. But we also need to have the high end, where an Elton John can come in and perform. We need to have a setting where Disney on Ice can come in and perform. My board has always asked me to make sure that we’re diversified, that we try to appeal to all the segments of our community. Our goal is to continue that diversity.
I also think that’s part of (Mayor) Andy McKenzie’s vision as well (with the additional money for the arena), he wants to see us grow that, to be able to add and supplement with downtown conventions, meetings perhaps, state organizations such as the state Lions club, this would be a great place for a group like that to come.
… The Ohio Valley is blessed with assets. If we had more meeting space – and this is not to take anything away, Oglebay does a phenomenal job … this would be to supplement and to add to what they do. I think the worst thing we could do is start competing with each other. That’s not the goal here. I can tell you, during my management regime, we’ve tried to be very attuned to not competing with the private sector. … I want to see us continue to be and maybe grow to be a better community partner. We’re part of the landscape. Let’s be honest – we look outside and we don’t like what we see in our downtown. I remember when it was difficult to walk on our sidewalks, not because the sidewalks weren’t wide enough, but because there were so many people on them. I hope we can return to that. … There is, right now, a rebirth opportunity that I think we haven’t seen in a long time. I get so excited when I drive out of here at 5 p.m. … and I see this construction going on at West Virginia Northern, it’s phenomenal. I like what Travis (Henline) and all the good folks have done at Independence Hall. I think we’ve really made some transition to the new Wheeling.
– You just got the first season with the Wheeling Nailers new ownership under your belt. How would you rate year one?
Magruder: I think the partnership has been strong. I think we’re focused in the right direction. … We need to reach out to the public, we need to reach out to the corporate community better, that part’s not there yet. We’ve got to get attendance up. I think the new ownership has done some good things in stabilizing the ship. … I still think we are going to need some help; we’ve got to become a little more competitive on the ice. I think some of the things we’re talking about doing here will make the building a little more competitive with the entertainment competition. … I think we’re going to have to do this as a community. We can’t survive long term on the attendance levels we achieved this year.
– What improvements do you see coming for year two?
Magruder: We’re actually looking at what we can do to improve the performance of some of our employees. What we’ve encountered is what the part-time labor world is encountering. We have a lot of employees that, for whatever reason, can’t make it at the last minute. That necessitates then shutting down part of our operation, under-producing sometimes when you have large crowds. We’re focusing right now, in house, on what we can do to make sure we have sufficient staffing each and every night so we don’t have to make emergency shutdowns.
– As part of your duties, you also manage the entertainment aspect of the Capitol Theatre. What’s on the horizon for the theater that local residents should be excited about?
Magruder: The seats at the Capitol Theatre are going to be replaced this summer, so there’s no waiting for that. … The thing that we’re most excited about … once we got in there, we took a look and said you know what, we’ve got a lot of problems, we’ve got 23 fire code violations, we’ve got a building that’s 80 years old, but it’s a wonderful treasure. You couldn’t build it today. It has so much history, so much aura of the past.
So we got in there and one of the things we said early on is look, this won’t be done in a year, or two, or five or probably 10, and I would just reiterate that. … It’ll be a long time to restore it to the grandeur of the day it opened. … Initially, the theater was designed to have a seven-story hotel on top. It didn’t happen because of the Great Depression. We’re not going to put a seven-story hotel on top. But to make that ballroom high quality, to put new seats in there, to now give back something that I think the patrons can feel, that’s going to be great. The patrons have been so generous, and you get a chance there, even more than here, the crowd funnels out of that very narrow lobby. I don’t really have a formal office there … so you get more of a chance to stand there and talk to the people. And the people are so grateful, not to me, but to the community and grateful to themselves that that theater’s reopened. I think that pride’s going to grow. I think the (Wheeling) Symphony’s becoming more stable. … After the theater closed, they didn’t know where their home was going to be for the next show or the next year. Now they’re back home, and I think they feel that way, we feel that way. I think it’s going to allow them to improve their stability.
The Broadway series has been a wonderful experience. Overall, our Broadway promoter has done a good job with show selection and being able to get shows to town. Next year we’ll be back, we’ll have five or six Broadway shows again. The comedians – the Seinfelds, the Ron Whites – they’ve fared very well. We’re going to continue to do that.
I think we’re going to see an increase in music. We’re trying to penetrate that 20-something market. We’ve had a number of things for my age group, the 55 and ups, not that we ever have enough. … But now we’re really trying to focus and reach out to those groups from the 1980s. I can tell you there’s a really good chance Bryan Adams will appear at the theater in the fall, we’re very close. I think we just want to continue to round out our entertainment. … We have to be diverse with our entertainment, we have to spread it out, and we have to make the best use of it. The more diverse we become, the more Friday and Saturday nights we can fill because then we’re addressing different audiences. … We’ve done a lot of surveys on what does our public want, and our public is telling us … to have six virtual sellouts from Dec. 18 and Feb. 15 said to me you know what, the people really do want this theater.