After a pandemic repurposing, Sullivan Arena is about to reopen. What’s its role in Anchorage now?

After nearly four years of use as an emergency shelter for the homeless, the arena is set to host ice hockey and special events once more.

The air inside Sullivan Arena is cold again.

Properly cold. The cold of an ice rink chilled by the flow of liquefied carbon dioxide pumping through subsurface pipes and sucking the warmth right off the concrete stadium steps, metal-halide lights and gunmetal gray plastic seats.

“We’re going to start with the recreational skating,” said Steve Agni, who leads O’Malley Ice and Sports Center, the company contracted with the municipality to operate the Sullivan, along with two other city-owned arenas.

“And then we’re going to (do) some public-reception-type events where we’re gonna allow the public to skate in the building,” Agni said, looking down at the completed Olympic-size ice rink that had been reinstalled and fully finished just days before. “But we want to get it completely spruced up before we do that.”

For nearly four years, Sullivan Arena has been at the heart of many of Anchorage’s political battles, central to disputes, debates and outright fights about COVID-19 pandemic emergency measures and homelessness.

“It’s an iconic building, it’s essential for our city in the cultural area,” Mayor Dave Bronson said in an interview. “It’s emblematic of everything that’s important to the city. A revitalized Sullivan helps revitalize Alaska.”

In March 2020, as city leaders scrambled to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration repurposed the 101,000-square-foot arena to use as a shelter for unhoused people, with enough room to keep socially distant from one another. Bronson made returning the arena to sports and events a central tenet of his 2021 election campaign, and has spent tremendous political capital scrapping with the Assembly over management of the homeless shelter inside the facility as it has been closed, reopened, and re-closed during his first term in office.

Even before the pandemic repurposing, though, the arena’s prominence in local life and its financial viability were in question. Which makes its future role in Anchorage even less certain.


“It’s really a teardown at this point,” said Berkowitz, whose first term in office coincided with an enormous drop in the facility’s revenues.

“There’s really not a future for that structure,” he said. “It’s just old and tired.”

This winter, the city did not reinstall any kind of shelter inside the cavernous concrete arena. The Bronson administration, as well as the majority of Assembly members, agreed that the facility was terribly suited to host a mass homeless shelter, even if there was vociferous disagreement about where people ought to go instead.

After the arena shelter shuttered last summer, municipal officials guided people to a newly established low-barrier shelter in the former Solid Waste Services building with 200 beds as the weather chilled ahead of winter. That’s far less capacity than what the Sullivan accommodated at its height, and people have otherwise ended up in converted hotel rooms or private shelters, or slept rough in the elements, either tenting throughout the greenbelt or clustered in semi-permanent encampments that have taken root in Davis Park and a large vacant lot near Midtown’s Cuddy Park.

In the meantime, the arena has been empty, its entrances covered with plywood as municipal workers repaired damage to the building and worked with contractors to shore up mechanical systems, inventory equipment and prepare the facility for its re-introduction to the community.

“For decades, the Sully hosted some of Alaska’s most memorable events and gatherings — from Willie Nelson to NHL hockey teams,” Bronson said in a July announcement about the contract with O’Malley. “It’s time for graduations, concerts, sporting events, trade shows and more to return to the Sullivan Arena. I’m pleased to say that we will be returning the Sully to the people of Anchorage —and Alaska — to whom it belongs.”

Earlier this month, Bronson posted on social media that big events are in store for the facility: an NHL Legends ice hockey tournament in April, three different gun shows, an animatronic dinosaur expo, and a concert by pioneering Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

‘Generally in good shape’

Before it could reopen, the Sullivan needed work.

In the rush to convert the building into an emergency shelter, the sophisticated ice plant that powers the rink was hastily idled. The rink’s boards haphazardly stacked away. Concessionary equipment and all kinds of paraphernalia for feeding and lubricating event-goers were crammed willy-nilly into storage areas.

“It was a huge pick-up sticks problem. Everything was just piled into a corner,” Agni said, waving toward several dusty beer carts languishing at odd angles along a hallway.

All throughout the building were small construction sites. The Center Ice Grill’s cabinets had to be torn out and replaced because of rot. Holes in walls were being mended. A large riding mop vehicle — “you could also call it a ‘floor Zamboni,’” Agni said — was polishing up a concourse.

Some of the damage came from operating a shelter inside the building. In the bathrooms, a majority of the fixtures were so battered they had to be replaced — opposite gleaming new white urinals, a three-sided stainless steel trough in the men’s room survived intact. But some was deferred maintenance or neglect that was decades in the making.


Under its contract with O’Malley, the municipality is largely responsible for fixing things.

The building’s original roof, laid during the first Reagan administration, is still in place, and the Municipal Facilities Maintenance crew is trying to repair a portion on the west side that leaks. Broken windows have been fixed, 40-year-old doors replaced, and the lighting system, original to the building’s construction, is due to be upgraded, according to Lance Wilber, who directs the city’s office of Economic and Community Development.

“The mechanicals are generally in good shape,” Wilber said.

Many of the walls have been freshly painted a deep shade of maroon.

At some point during the shelter era, the equipment panel that runs the scoreboard left the building.

“The control system disappeared. Who knows where it is. Why someone would take it, I have no idea, but it was gone,” Agni said.


The system is from the 1990s, so finding a replacement device that can interface with the scoreboard has been challenging.

Agni’s company manages ice rinks, including a private complex in South Anchorage, as well as the municipality’s other, smaller indoor rinks, the Ben Boeke and Dempsey-Anderson. While they plan on using the Sullivan for ice hockey, it’s the only facility in the portfolio that will also host a wide range of different events — everything from the potential return of high school graduation ceremonies to trade association shows to touring musical acts.

“We’re talking to some of the guys that are national names,” Agni said. “They book way out, they’re booked like six to nine months out. That’s one of our challenges. We got to get the building up and running, and we won’t have those folks until probably next fall.”

Under the contract terms, ticket sales for events include small surcharges that are collected by O’Malley and passed along to the municipality. As the contractor, O’Malley is responsible for basic maintenance and cleaning in the building, with the municipality taking care of larger upkeep and grounds upkeep. Five percent of gross revenues taken in by O’Malley will go toward paying for major maintenance.

The municipality is paying utility costs through 2025, when O’Malley will take them over.

In a revenue projection attached to O’Malley’s contract with the city, the company anticipates taking in $460,000 in the first year it’s in charge of the facility, and projects growing that to $524,401 by the fifth year of the contract. After a $30,000-per-year management fee and required contribution to a capital reserve fund for major maintenance, the company estimates it’ll need to take in several hundred thousand dollars a year before covering all its operating costs and getting to the point where it shares profits 50-50 with the municipality.


“We’re hoping by year two we can break even. But it’s a big chore, still,” Agni said.

Arena made Anchorage ‘a real city’

Agni was a co-owner of the Alaska Aces, back when the professional team was winning championships and filling all 6,290 seats in the Sullivan, and before the franchise folded in 2017 because of diminished attendance and the state’s enervated economy.

By the end of 2016, SMG of Alaska, the company managing the facility, posted a $589,000 operating loss at the arena.

In Berkowitz’s analysis, the large facility, built in the heady days of the 1980s oil boom, no longer fits the town or state’s needs.

“The economics were just not there. And they’re still not there. Even though there’s vocal segments of the community who insist on its viability,” Berkowitz said.

Part of what happened was that other event venues came online and ate the Sully’s lunch.

The downtown Dena’ina Center, finished in 2008, stole away a lot of the conventions and trade shows. The Alaska Airlines Center by the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, which opened in 2014, took a bunch of sporting events, including the hugely popular Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament.

“That definitely put a pinch on the Sullivan Arena,” said former mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.


The Sullivan was one of several major cultural facilities in Anchorage that were part of what’s known as Project 80s. After the completion of the trans-Alaska pipeline, when oil prices shot up, bulging state coffers spilled outward from the Legislature to municipalities around Alaska for capital projects. Anchorage was getting tens of millions of dollars a year from the state that went into expanding the Anchorage Museum and building Sullivan Arena, the Egan Center, the Loussac Library and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

“It was just amazing,” said Rick Mystrom, who was on the Anchorage Assembly at the time and went on to later serve as mayor. “There were sky-cranes all over Anchorage at that time.”

The bonanza happened without the municipality having to bond or borrow for any of it. The arena was built relatively quickly and, Mystrom said, was part of change in the town’s character where all of the sudden it seemed like Anchorage got to have nice things.

“We were so proud … everybody just wanted to walk around it,” Mystrom said of the Sullivan’s opening in 1983. “There was a real sense of pride in the city for having done that. To get all of those facilities at one time … and with no debt! That kind of said, ‘Anchorage is a real city.’ ”

It was an exciting time in the city, Mystrom said. There were 185 international flights a week connecting the growing municipality to capitals in Europe and Asia. Famous musicians and powerhouse sports teams were coming through Anchorage, and when they did, they played on the floor of the Sully.

The good times, though, did not last. In 1986 oil prices cratered, and the state economy bent into a profound three-year slump. Officials in Anchorage gradually awoke to the fact they’d bought several large, complicated buildings, but not built in ways to pay for their upkeep.

Begich recalled looking down from the eighth floor of City Hall at the roof of the performing arts center and seeing trees growing out of it. All around town was long-deferred maintenance of buildings owned by the municipality, and he insisted that new projects include mechanisms to sock money away for their long-term care.

“You’ll never get Project 80s money again, that’s not happening,” Begich said.

Built into O’Malley’s current contract with the municipality is a provision that 5% of gross revenues taken in from events will go toward major maintenance.

In its heyday, Begich said, the Sullivan “brought every kind of Alaskan.”

In a way, it was required to. Having been built with public money, under local statutes the arena must “be managed to promote the broadest possible community use,” with maintenance and operations costs paid by user fees. Everyone, the former mayors each recalled, had been there for something, whether it was a Jimmy Buffett or Ozzy Osbourne concert, a standing-room-only Friday night Aces game, or a graduation ceremony.

When Bronson campaigned and entered office, the promise he made was that the facility would “get back to normal.”

“The Sullivan Arena is one of the crown jewels of Anchorage,” he said. “It can’t just sit there and be a homeless center.”

The other mayors, though, were less confident the building would return to its position of prominence in local life, given all the changes in the economy, cultural tastes, and expanded range of venues.

“Most people that have been in Anchorage a long time have a strong memory of going to an event there,” Berkowitz said. “That results in their emotional connection.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.