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Hartselle Enquirer

Clarkson Arena not just a field of dreams

By Staff
Lindsay Vaught, Guest Columnist
In 1989 a baseball diamond was carved out of an Iowa cornfield in the middle of nowhere. That field was the setting for one of my favorite sports movies, 'Field of Dreams'. It starred Kevin Costner and was nominated for an Academy Award. The catch phrase in the movie was "if you build it, they will come".
I see a lot of the same intangibles at work in the plans for a new Decatur indoor arena announced three weeks ago. The site is just 16 miles from downtown Hartselle.
That movie about "Shoeless" Joe Jackson came to my mind when Art Clarkson, the ingenious owner of the af2 Vipers announced he was bolting the Von Braun Center to build an entertainment complex in a cotton field at the I65-I565 interchange. The centerpiece will be a 12,000 seat arena where his team would play, possibly as early as 2005.
The project gained legitimacy when the Decatur City Council approved $9 million in infrastructure improvements to the site.
Funding still must be secured but according to Clarkson it won't be a problem.
"Right now we have about eight groups that are interested in investing in the project, this arena is going to get done," Clarkson said last week. "I expect an announcement on this (the funding) within 45 to 60 days. This is a true Tennessee Valley project, it's not about Huntsville or Decatur or Hartselle. Marketing shows our location will be within a 25- mile radius of 457,000 people."
One thing that won't be a problem if the arena is built is filling it with football fans.
The Vipers have averaged 87 percent capacity since their inception in 2000. Clarkson has put a quality product on the field in one of the worst arenas in the league.
Imagine what he could do with a first class venue.
Improvements to playing in the VBC are too many to name. A regulation field for starters. More field level seats is another. Throw in cheerleaders on the field behind the end zone where they belong, 24 luxury boxes, and a concession area where you can buy a drink and not miss a play like in the Georgia Dome, and I'm interested.
And I think fans from Hartselle, Decatur, Athens, Madison, and even Huntsville will be, too. The quick trip out I565 shouldn't be a burden for SUV driving fans.
The return of minor league hockey is almost a sure thing if the arena is built. And it has already been mentioned as a possible home for high school indoor track that would fill it for four Saturdays in January-February each year.
Other possibilities include high school volleyball and wrestling state championships that would be of great interest to local municipalities
Huntsville responded by announcing a proposed enlargement and renovation to the Von Braun Center Arena. The arena hasn't changed since opening in 1974 and desperately needs a facelift, but the plan isn't funded and the city has higher priorities.
Namely luring a downtown hotel and fixing the deficiencies at aging Joe Davis Stadium to keep AA baseball in town.
Minor league baseball is a hot commodity and if cities don't provide a quality stadium, other cities will. Evidence the Orlando team moving to Montgomery to play in a new riverfront park next season.
No one knows this better than Clarkson. With his own arena he would control concessions and parking, of which he currently gets no cut. As owner of the Birmingham Barons for 15 years, he was the driving force behind the building of the Hoover Met.
The man knows sports and knows marketing and has a track record to prove it. He has a wall full of awards such as Southern League Executive of the Year, which he was named four times. His philosophy for marketing sports is simple; make coming to the games fun for the whole family by putting a quality product on the field and have first class amenities that make people want to come to the games.
"If you have an outdated venue then you start out from behind," he said.
That's one place you won't find Clarkson.