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The DCU Center in Worcester, with an arena nearing four decades in age and a convention center two decades old, is in line for as much as nearly $37 million worth of upgrades in the coming few years.
The overhaul will include interior fixes such as new seating and exterior fixes aimed at making the building's outside more visually appealing through better landscaping. Improvements will be both noticeable to guests, like a planned new arena sound system, and less so, like roof repairs and an electrical vault renovation in the convention center.
The planned improvements will address wear-and-tear and keep up with nearby arenas and meeting halls, like the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, the XL Center in Hartford and the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
The improvements will keep the DCU Center on top of trends in the industry, such as having redundant Wi-Fi systems – something never been considered when the arena opened in 1981, said Sandy Dunn, the center's general manager.
“There's three areas there,” she said of each of those areas of focus, “and I think the city tries to do a blend on those.”
Worcester's Civic Center Commission, which oversees the DCU Center, hired the Boston sports architecture firm Populous to assess the facility's condition in 2016 and help guide a plan for the coming years. The firm looked at how the DCU Center compared to modern arena features today.
Some improvements have already been made, including upgrading an electrical vault and – much more noticeably for visitors – installing better Wi-Fi.
Further back, the arena replaced the rink's ice surface in 2009. What was considered the arena's first major renovations took place in 2013, with a new concourse and modernized entry on Foster Street, and new suites for hosting parties.
The 14,800-seat arena has been kept up well enough to host collegiate tournaments, including NCAA men's hockey regional finals in 2012 and 2018. It last hosted the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 2005, an honor more recently gone to Boston's TD Garden in 2012 and 2018, and to the Dunkin' Donuts Center in 2010 and 2016. The XL Center will host this year for the first time since 1998, after Connecticut's state government devoted $35 million to renovations.
John Harrity, the chair of the city's Civic Center Commission, hopes the most recent renovations, along with more nearby hotel rooms since when Worcester last hosted the basketball tournament, can draw March Madness back.
“That was a big, big weekend for Worcester, and the spin-off was excellent,” he said.
Competing venues have been upgraded, too. In addition to the XL Center's improvements, the Dunkin' Donuts Center, which opened in 1973, underwent an $80-million renovation in 2008 included replacing all seats, adding 20 luxury suites and an expanded lobby. TD Garden in Boston underwent a $40-million upgrade in 2014, and a planned expansion worth $100 million was unveiled last year.
The meeting business has gotten more competitive since DCU Center's convention center was added in 1997 with 100,000 square feet of space.
The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center opened in 2004 with 2.1 million square feet. The Connecticut Convention Center opened in Hartford a year later with 540,000 square feet of space, as did the 100,000-square-foot MassMutual Convention Center in Springfield. Just last year, Mohegan Sun in Connecticut opened an $80-million expansion of its convention space now totaling more than 275,000 square feet.
Those join the 610,000-square-foot Rhode Island Convention Center, which opened in 1993. The MGM casino in Springfield and Encore casino due to open in Everett this year have their own large ballrooms.
Keeping up with the industry is critical for Worcester, Harrity said.
“In order to stay competitive in this market, we have to keep going and staying current with what's demanded in this market right now,” he said.
With more improvements in mind, the DCU Center expects to spend at least $26 million and as much as $37 million in the coming years.
Funds will be gathered through a special tax surcharge on properties in a district surrounding the facility. The district, established in 2006, uses taxes from hotels, meals and retail sales, and revenue from the city-owned parking garage on Major Taylor Boulevard.
In 2015, the special tax district was expanded to include other properties in the city, including the AC Hotel on Front Street and the former Worcester County Courthouse now slated for a 117-unit housing development. The expansion allowed the city to double the amount of money it could raise for DCU Center improvements.
Among the first visible improvements visitors will likely notice are exterior upgrades including new landscaping. That aspect was prioritized by City Manager Edward Augustus.
“It really is his vision, and we're following his vision,” she said.
Other expected work will include new convention center seating, upgraded locker and dressing rooms and a new sound system. The exact list of improvements hasn't yet been finalized, according to the city.
Investing for a payoff
Arenas and convention centers can provide significant economic value for a city, said College of the Holy Cross sports economy professor Victor Matheson. As a leading voice nationally on the topic, he's otherwise a skeptic of public investment for facilities for baseball or football, which have far more limited uses than an arena.
The DCU Center's main tenants are the Worcester Railers hockey team and Massachusetts Pirates arena football team, but it can hosts trade shows, circuses, monster truck racing or anything in between. Its convention business can provide more hotel guests than sporting events, Matheson said.
Matheson urges balance between spending to keep up with other facilities and falling behind the competition.
“Whether or not it's a good thing is a function of how much you put in and how much you put out,” he said. “There is an arms race with conventions centers and arenas because there are a limited number of conventions go to around.”