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Backers of a new downtown events center say facility could be Kalamazoo's crown jewel

Southwest Michigan First is behind the new push to build an arena in downtown Kalamazoo, several years after plans hit a standstill. (Carter Gent/WWMT)

Southwest Michigan First is behind the new push to build an arena in downtown Kalamazoo, several years after plans hit a standstill.

In hopes of resurrecting the dream of a downtown Kalamazoo arena, Southwest Michigan First has renewed efforts to build $85 million facility with capacity to seat up to 9,000 people in an arena that could generate millions of dollars in annual tourism spending.

More than just an arena, the proposed event center would be the crown jewel that turns downtown Kalamazoo into a destination, according to Ron Kitchens, the chief executive officer of Southwest Michigan First.

"We want to see concerts and live entertainment in our home town, not have to drive an hour away and come home at 1 o’clock in the morning to be able to see the best music acts, to see the circus, to see these great things," Kitchens said.

Concerts, games, expos, shows and more would attract nearly 1.5 million visitors to Kalamazoo each year with such a facility. And, Kitchens said, increase restaurant spending alone by $23 million.

"Frankly, if we don’t do this we’re going to continue to see population decline, this is one of those expectations of growth that great communities have," Kitchens said.

As envisioned, the plan would create 200 permanent jobs and up to 700 construction jobs.

Kitchens has his eye on a few different sites. Possible locations include vacant land on Stadium Drive by Western Michigan University, the lot by the Heritage Guitar factory, which was once home to Gibson, and right downtown, not far from the site initially proposed before plans fell apart due to a lack of support in 2011.

Community leaders first took up the idea of an arena in downtown Kalamazoo in 2003, plans came to a standstill in 2011 after the tax to fund the project failed to make it on the ballot due to a lack of support.

“It was a great idea, the structure was right, the only thing that was wrong before was a national collapse of our economy,” Kitchens said.

Most of the opposition in 2011 surrounded the 1 percent food and beverage sales tax at bars and restaurants in Kalamazoo County to pay for the events center, which is also the funding mechanism proposed is this latest push.

Kitchens explained, "So if you had a hamburger for ten bucks, it would cost you a dime to pay for the arena."

The future of the plans will be left in the hand of the county commission.

If the Kalamazoo County Commissioners get on board with the idea and voters approve of the tax, construction could start as early as the summer of 2019.

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