Center of Attention

The $480 million Amway Center makes a bold statement about Orlando’s big-city aspirations and gives downtown gravitational pull.

So here we are again on West Church Street. This is where downtown once enjoyed its best years, and it is here that Orlando has staked its claim to become a world-class city. You have to go back nearly 40 years to find a time when downtown stood on the cusp of such a transformational moment, as it is now with the opening of Amway Center this month.

This section of West Church is only a few blocks of paved and brick road running east-west, but if the expectations for the new sports and entertainment venue come true the corridor’s surface someday will be covered with gold. That’s the way it was back in the 1970s when a dreamer named Bob Snow took a block of derelict buildings and turned it into Church Street Station, a family-friendly group of old-time-themed bars and restaurants. For several years it brought life to an area of downtown that had been all but given up for dead.

Church Street Station is still here, of course, but it isn’t anything like Snow’s palace, which he sold in 1989 before Disney and Universal took away the nightlife business. Still, Snow always believed Church Street Station could be great again. He even tried, in 2008, to return his cherished Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House to prominence, but that comeback didn’t last long. He now can only guess what might have happened had his music hall been able to hang on, as some downtown bars and restaurants have done while waiting for the new arena to deliver the promised hordes onto Orlando’s streets.

But Snow didn’t even need a preview tour of the Orlando Magic’s new home to know that the arena, which opens Oct. 1, will be a game changer.

“People who haven’t been downtown in the evening for 20 years will be back down again,” says the “father of downtown Orlando,” as Snow was once known. The Amway, he adds, “is going to draw a lot more of a cross-section of Orlando,” meaning a wider range of ages than downtown’s nightspots have seen in many years.

If Snow had gone inside the shiny $480 million venue, built with glass and steel and underwritten by bonds and a $50 million contribution from the Orlando Magic, he might have come away with a slightly different take on Amway Center’s potential impact on downtown. Had he seen the interior’s spaciousness and chic decor, the bars and restaurants, the retail areas and artwork displays, had he toured a few luxury suites and walked out onto the very cool Sky Bar looking out across the city’s skyline, he very likely would have seen the ironic problem with such a well-appointed venue: There is little incentive to leave.

Built to Impress

Unlike its unremarkable predecessor less than a mile north, Amway Center is a place that invites you to check out every detail of its 875,000 square feet of OMG! It is loaded with amenities that, for the most part, all patrons can enjoy regardless of how much they paid to get in.

There is more of everything in the new facility compared with the old arena: restrooms, bars, concession stands, restaurants (including an upscale sit-down dining area), seats and suites, levels and concourses, and retail stores. It has the biggest and most technologically enhanced scoreboard in the NBA, with four huge high-definition screens displaying game action. There is even a children’s play area equipped with things to climb on and arcade games. The building is so big—nearly three times larger than the venue it replaced—that planners color coded its east and west sides to help people find their way around.

If you’ve attended concerts or Magic games at the old arena and think that it was a perfectly good facility and that replacing it was unnecessary, a walk through Amway Center will change your mind. To even compare the two venues is an abuse of logic: The old building is an early model Caravan minivan with roll-down windows; the new facility is a pimped-out Escalade with killer rims. But it would be a hybrid, since the new building  stands a good chance of being the only NBA venue to gain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a green-building stamp of approval.

The old O-Rena, as many of us called it because we couldn’t keep up with the name changes during its 21 years, was a product of Orlando’s inferiority complex: We were a bottom-tier NBA market and therefore deserved no better than a generic arena for the only major league sports franchise to come here, an expansion team no less.

Although the arena was situated in the city, it had an estranged relationship with downtown. Maybe that was because you felt as if you were in the suburbs when you attended an event. Surrounded by a sea of parking and set away from the nightclub district, the arena was an island unto itself, discouraging event-goers from venturing away from it.

And that’s the story supporters of the new center are sticking to in explaining why the new venue’s location will be a boon to downtown businesses. Set just west of I-4 between Hughey Avenue and Division Street, Amway Center’s doors open onto a beautifully spruced-up block of West Church Street, which will be closed to vehicles during big events. The idea is to create a street party atmosphere, with revelers flowing east on Church toward nightclubs and restaurants. Because there are only a couple of thousand parking spaces available within two adjacent city garages, most visitors presumably will walk, even if only a short distance, through parts of downtown from and to nearby lots.

“That was intentional,” Orl-ando Mayor Buddy Dyer says about the parking setup. “We want people to walk along Church Street from the other parking facilities. That will give it a more urban, pedestrian feel and help support downtown businesses.”

With the venue expected to schedule 180 events per year, downtown nightclub owners see the potential for an economic stimulus coming their way every other day.

“I expect Church Street to have a flood of people every time there is an event at [Amway Center], not just for games,” Leo Bitetto says.

Bitetto can only hope he’s right, because he just opened the new Baby Grands Dueling Piano Bar on Church. Still, he and other Church Street business owners aren’t leaving it all up to the new venue to bring customers to them.

Doug Taylor has led an effort to form an association of Church Street merchants for the purpose of promoting the corridor from Division to Orange as an entertainment district. Plans also call for signage and beautifying the east side of I-4 to resemble the streetscaping in front of Amway Center.

But Taylor, co-owner of five Church Street bars including Antigua and Latitudes, is dreaming even bigger, saying he wants to establish a music festival as an annual outdoor event on Church, much like SunFest in West Palm Beach.

“For people who live in the suburbs,” he says, “I think this is going to establish downtown as a place to come for entertainment even on days when there isn’t an event in the center.”

Big City Dreams

Nightclub owners  Doug Taylor (left) and Leo Bitetto see Amway Center (background) as the catalyst for making the Church Street corridor from Division to Orange an entertainment district.

If Amway Center is Dyer’s baby, it won’t grow up as an only child. With the mayor’s blessings—some sanctified with financial inducements—downtown has seen residential high-rises, including two with Church Street access, go up (and go bust, but that’s another story). In addition, a Publix and a multiplex have opened, the latter in The Plaza condo tower at Orange Avenue and Church.

Also on West Church, but not even a mile west of the city’s urban core, sits the Citrus Bowl, the ugly duckling of the $1.1 billion venues plan that also includes a performing arts center. The stadium renovation is on hold until tourism tax revenues, a major funding source of the venues plan, return to pre-recession form. Still, Dyer came up with $10 million to make interim improvements to the downtrodden facility, including synthetic turf in the wake of the mud bowl fiasco on New Year’s Day.

And by 2013, Dyer expects to add commuter rail and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to the brood, with the former stopping on West Church and the latter only a block south of it on Orange. Off on the horizon is his Creative Village concept, which envisions a vertical development of residential towers and educational facilities on the old arena site.

“We should never settle for second best,” says Dyer, who is bucking the city’s history of having done just that.

Clearly, this is not our fathers’ Orlando anymore.

We can argue over whether being a big city is better than being a little one, or whether publicly financed venues give more to the tax base than they take. That we’re even having those debates is a sign that Orlando is no longer content with being the city our fathers described to relatives in the North as the home of Walt Disney World, which is nowhere near the city limits.

Snow, the father of downtown, once proved that if you build it they will come—by the millions, too.  Amway Center is built and open, and they will come, once again, to West Church Street.

Steve Blount contributed to this article.

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