When the crowd passes under the soaring stainless steel columns in the lobby of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s new Alaska Airlines Center to hear Alabama Shakes next month, they’ll be walking into history.
The performance by the nationally acclaimed Southern roots rock band, its Alaska debut, will be the first concert in the $110 million, 192,000-square-foot building that is likely to become one of the state’s prime live music venues.
The center has been mostly discussed as a sports facility. The main feature is a 5,000-seat fishbowl arena designed for athletic events. Offices for coaches and UAA sports program staff overlook the floor. Smaller gyms inside the building include a workout area for students, practice space for home and visiting teams, and a permanent gymnastics room with pits and a sprung floor.
Hockey and swimming will remain in their present location, the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, which is undergoing its own extensive renovations. But Seawolves basketball and volleyball games will take place in the new arena. Among other things, it is the new home of the Great Alaska Shootout, previously held at the Sullivan Arena.
The Sullivan has seemed oversized for many games in recent years, especially when the Shootout and other events drew a small audience.
It has also presented a problem for musical acts. It’s possible to wrangle something worth listening to from the cavernous space but only when a presenter spends the money and effort to get an appropriate -- and generally expensive -- sound system in place. Too often, major artists have made the arena sound like a giant echo chamber, with muddy resonance and reverb ricocheting around like hailstones on a tin roof. Rapper Coolio was so upset with the sound quality and problems he had hearing himself during his 1996 Sullivan show that he kicked the speakers off the stage before the end of his last set.
The new UAA center has been designed with acoustics in mind, said general manager Chris Orheim during a walk through the building this month. The back wall of polished aluminum, decorated with a 36-foot-tall Seawolf logo made from LED lights that change color, is positioned so that sound will bounce off it. The speakers being tested during a pre-grand-opening tour sounded clear and clean. In addition, all seats appeared to have good lines of sight to the floor, which isn’t the case in some of the farther recesses of the Sullivan.
The fans who arrive at the Alabama Shakes show will have the first chance to find out whether the reality lives up to the promise. They’ll find two concession stands and two sets of men's and women's restrooms on each level. (The gents may have to wait longer than they’ve become accustomed to at the Sully, where long, trough-like latrines make germophobes shudder but speed the process. The men’s rooms of the new center use single-unit urinals.)
Parking may be less frustrating. There are 500 regular spaces plus 100 “VIP” spaces, Orheim said, and the university has an agreement with nearby Providence Alaska Medical Center to use two of the hospital’s parking garages. In addition, parking will be available at the main campus, with shuttle buses connecting to the center in particularly well-attended events. Another option will be shuttling patrons from an off-campus location, like the University Center.
“Parking will be free for games at this time,” Orheim said. “There might be a small fee for events.”
Orheim, who works for Global Spectrum Management, a Philadelphia-based company that administers several similar facilities across the country, said he expects between 12 and 20 “non-UAA sports events” to be held at the center each year, including concerts and speakers sponsored by the UAA Student Concert Board, which is sponsoring Alabama Shakes. “Up to five of those will be major events,” he said.
Not all will be musical; some will be commercial sports events not associated with student athletics. For example, Orheim said, “I’d love to see the Harlem Globetrotters here.” He also expects the center to be used for graduation commencements as early as this winter.
Visitors to the center will also have the option of ordering food that’s “a little better than you might expect” at a ballpark, Orheim added. The Varsity Sports Grill, overlooking the arena, will feature beer and wine along with a menu that includes, among other things, artisan pizza.
The restaurant will be open seven days a week. It’s expected that it will be its own destination, game or no game. Patrons will have free parking in the VIP spaces.
The center will host a number of food-oriented activities alongside rock bands and basketball tournaments. The smaller gym space can double as a banquet facility, Orheim said.
Among the non-sports events planned for the grand-opening festivities is the Taste of Alaska charity benefit for the UAA Emergency Food Fund, with top local chefs dishing out their best entrees and desserts. A Food Truck Rodeo is planned for the parking lot and will coincide with a drive-in movie projected on the walls of the building, the sound carried via a low-power FM radio signal.
Even when no events are going on, the public may find reasons to stop by. A texturized rubber walking track circles the top level of the arena and non-students will be free to use it.
“Keeping the building accessible to the public is a big priority,” Orheim said.
But the main users will be UAA students. The building was positioned between the main campus and the dormitories in part to provide students with a section of sheltered walkway as they go from their rooms to classes.
“The plan is they can walk through the building and hopefully pick up a cup of coffee or some fresh fruit,” Orheim said.
And if they happen to find their future soul mate in the latte line, the center has something to offer in the way of a large balcony with a gorgeous, panoramic view of the Chugach Mountains.
“This is going to be a great place for weddings,” Orheim said.
UAA Alaska Airlines Center grand opening activities
• Springhill Volleyball Tournament, starting 9 a.m. Sept. 5-6. Free
• Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting, 4-7 p.m. Sept. 5. Free
• Youth Sports Day and Spirit Run, 10 a.m. Sept. 6. $5 for the general public, free for UAA students
• Taste of Alaska, 5-8 p.m. Sept. 10. $10 plus a can of food.
• “Service Before Self," 6-9 p.m. Sept. 11. An evening dedicated to Alaska’s first responders and military; includes an art exhibit, music and silent auction to benefit causes like Healing Hearts and the Fallen Heroes Memorial. Free
• Food Truck Rodeo and Drive-in Movie, 5 p.m. Sept. 12; movie starts at sundown, about 9 p.m. Free
• Alabama Shakes, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13. Whipsaws open. General admission, $49.50; $28 for students
• “Howlapalooza,” local live music on two stages with food and crafts vendors, 1-11 p.m., Sept. 14. Free.
Tickets and more information are at alaskaairlinescenter.com.