Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said Monday that the Sullivan Arena will be reopened this fall for entertainment and sporting events.
“The municipality has come to an agreement with the operator or, with an operator to, run and return the Sullivan Arena to what it was actually created for. The Sullivan Arena will again be used to showcase entertainment events and sporting functions,” Bronson told reporters at Anchorage City Hall.
O’Malley Ice and Sports will pay the city to operate the arena, Bronson said. The company currently runs the city’s Ben Boeke and Dempsey Anderson ice arenas.
“After a year of operation, we have seen the level of revenue from those buildings come back to 2017 and 2018 levels. That is a really good thing for our city. Now, under the agreement, O’Malley Ice and Sports will pay the municipality to use the Sullivan Arena and create more of a revenue stream for the city,” Bronson said.
The arena was last used for events in early 2020. For much of the last three years — since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — the city used the arena as the only walk-in, low-barrier homeless shelter in Anchorage. The city rapidly converted the arena into an emergency shelter when the pandemic forced local homeless shelters to drop their capacities to implement necessary health measures.
Bronson’s administration closed the arena for a few months last summer, citing concerns with costs, and directed homeless residents to stay in a city-owned Anchorage campground. But in the absence of an alternative for emergency winter shelter, the city reopened Sullivan as a shelter in fall 2022. Then, at the end of May, the city fully closed the Sullivan Arena shelter.
John Stenehjem, O’Malley Ice general manager, said it will be ready for operations as an event space around Nov. 1.
“We’ve been inside the building doing some preliminary groundwork; things are looking really good. And we’re very excited to bring that iconic building back to the community,” he said.
They’ve reached out to groups who were waiting for the building to become operational, but at this point haven’t yet booked events, Stenehjem said. “But, pay attention over the next 10 days and I’m sure you’ll see some very positive results,” he said.
The city will pay for repairs and improvements, said Purchasing Director Rachelle Alger. The city is working on contracts to get the parking lot striped and some glass repaired, Bronson said. But the building is in “remarkably good shape” Bronson said.
Some of the stadium lighting, which is old technology, needs replacing, and the 1980s-era sound system needs updating, Bronson said.
“So when we get back to rock concerts and country western concerts, I think we’ll have to deal with that,” he said. ”It’s a process. Over time, we’ll get it back up to normal.”
The Anchorage Wolverines hockey team had previously scheduled its first games at the arena in 2021. But the team had to scrap those plans and has been playing in the Ben Boeke Ice Arena due to Sullivan’s continued use as a homeless shelter.
On Monday, representatives with Wolverines management said the group is in discussion with the arena’s management company to see what Wolverine hockey would look like at Sullivan, but they said they have no plans to announce at this time.
“It’s no secret the Wolverines have intended to play at the Sullivan since inception, however that has not yet been a possibility. Currently, the Wolverines are slated to play the 2023-24 season at Ben Boeke,” the Anchorage Wolverines Board said in a statement. “We look forward to meeting with the city and managing group to discuss the possibility of moving our operations to the Sullivan in the future.”
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who represents North Anchorage, where Sullivan is located, said, “In the abstract, I love the idea of the arena having a positive public use.”
However, Constant said he wants to see the details of the agreement the city has made with the management company, and details about the repairs, costs and the administration’s plan to pay for them.
With Sullivan Arena off the table for good as an option for emergency winter shelter, it’s unclear what, exactly, the city will do. City laws require Anchorage officials to open emergency winter shelter when temperatures drop below 45 degrees — which is likely to happen in about two months.
Officials have estimated more than 750 people are currently living unsheltered in Anchorage, camping in large encampments on public lands, in parks and other green spaces, and sleeping in vehicles or on the street. Few, if any, low-barrier shelter beds are available day to day.
Bronson on Monday said he doesn’t yet know what the city will do for the coming winter, but that he expects the Anchorage Health Department to announce a plan next week.
“Until I see the plan by the housing and homeless coordinator for cold-weather sheltering, I don’t know,” he said.
In an email last week, Homeless Coordinator Alexis Johnson said the city is not looking at other mass shelter options for the winter. Rather, it is focused on finding locations for non-congregate shelter, such as hotels, “which the Assembly has alluded they prefer and support,” Johnson said.
Bronson, during an interview with the Daily News last week, also suggested the city could buy plane tickets for homeless residents who want to leave and go somewhere warmer in the Lower 48, as a last-ditch effort to keep people from freezing to death.
“As brutal as it sounds, they’re better off living on the street in a warm climate than they are dying on the streets of Anchorage by exposure,” he said during Monday’s news conference.
Anchorage has already hit a grim record of 29 people dying outside so far this year — more than half of the deaths occurring since the city closed Sullivan Arena to most homeless residents on May 1 — surpassing last year’s total number of outdoor deaths, with several months left to go in 2023.
In response to a question about the number of deaths, Bronson reiterated his call for the city to build a large shelter and said the deaths largely are not related to exposure.
“We need a shelter. I’ve said it for over two years that we need a large shelter to house these people. We don’t have one,” Bronson said. He acknowledged the city has made progress, noting several hotel conversions that have opened or will open soon as low-income housing or shelter.
Early on in his term, Bronson proposed a large homeless shelter and navigation facility in East Anchorage near Tudor and Elmore roads. Last year, the Assembly set aside funding for the project and scaled down his initial proposal to 150 beds. But the project has sat dormant for months — Assembly members voted to stop work after Bronson officials bungled the contracting process. The Assembly is scheduled to vote in August on a proposal to revive it, but several members say they are concerned with rising costs, and little funding has so far been identified.
At times, Sullivan Arena had sheltered upwards of 500 people last winter, including in a separate warming area.
After the city reopened the Arena as an emergency shelter at the end of September, residents and business owners in the Fairview, North Star and downtown neighborhoods raised concerns about public health and safety issues in the surrounding streets and parks. Some found unconscious people outside they tried to resuscitate, and in other instances, they discovered bodies.
The Fairview Community Council also called for the city to support a scattered-site shelter model with smaller, targeted shelters spread around the city, rather than concentrating homelessness services in the downtown and Fairview areas. For years, the area has been home to the most homeless services, compared to other Anchorage neighborhoods.
Now that Sullivan is closed, a large encampment of about 200 or more people has sprouted in a vacant city-owned lot several blocks north near the intersection of Third Avenue and Ingra Street.
Constant said that people with homes and businesses between Sullivan and the encampment say they “feel like they’ve got it bad, and it’s worse than maybe it was.” That was a predictable outcome of its closure, with so many people displaced, he said.