GM: Convention Center, Dunk may remain empty for rest of 2020

PROVIDENCE — Regular business at the Rhode Island Convention Center and the Dunkin’ Donuts Center is unlikely to resume in 2020.

Larry Lepore, general manager of both facilities, offered a sobering analysis Wednesday night in an interview with WPRO. Lepore can’t envision either venue running at full capacity without the eventual development of a coronavirus vaccine.

“Now it looks like the Convention Center probably won’t come back online until January,” Lepore said on “The Gresh Show.” “The Dunk, there’s still hope that at the end of this year we’ll be able to resume some normal operation.

“When I say normal, I don’t think it will ever be what it was.”

Spirit Fest Nationals was the first event to be canceled in March. Lepore said the weekend cheerleading festival would have drawn 8,000 athletes to a full Convention Center. The building’s website lists only Rhode Island Comic Con among its upcoming events this year, and that’s scheduled for November.

“From that point on, it’s been a whirlwind of scheduling, rescheduling, and then that rescheduled date going away,” Lepore said. “We constructed a hospital in the meantime. It took about three weeks to get that up.”

The 600 available beds at the Lifespan Alternative Hospital will remain in place for six months. The state is leasing the space for $3.96 million, which includes a 25% discount due to the extended term. The setup work was performed by the state Department of Health, the Rhode Island National Guard and local labor unions.

“I have never been more proud of Rhode Islanders and the labor that rallied to get that built,” Lepore said. “That was normally something that would take three months to build.”

Lepore speculated the two primary tenants at The Dunk, Providence College men’s basketball and the Providence Bruins, could seek alternate home venues for the 2020-21 season. The Friars averaged 10,064 fans through 16 home dates last season and exceeded that figure on nine different occasions. The P-Bruins welcomed 7,645 fans per home date, which sat well above the American Hockey League average of 5,537.

“All of our events, the main driver is concessions,” Lepore said. “If you have 12,000 for a PC game and you’re only doing 3,000 or 4,000, I don’t know if that’s what the patron wants.”

As recently as 2018, the Friars paid a rental fee of $35,000 per home date. There was some friction between Providence and the facility after a February 2018 game with Seton Hall was suspended due to condensation on the floor. The second half was finished the following day on campus at Alumni Hall, and Fox Sports was able to fulfill its broadcast responsibilities from that venue.

“I think most people — it would be more practical for them to sit at home and watch the game,” Lepore said. “And why would PC or the American Hockey League need to play at such a big facility if it’s going to be a televised event?”

The AHL requires each of its franchises to stream games online, broadcasting them at theahl.com. There is no lucrative television contract to offset possible losses at the gate. Local rinks with available ice time and adequate locker rooms could take the place of The Dunk when the P-Bruins return for their 2020-21 season.

“If you think of the options the American Hockey League has, there are a lot of facilities — smaller, tighter, easier to control — where they could play their games other than a 12,000-seat arena,” Lepore said.

Providence College declined to comment, and the P-Bruins did not respond to a request for comment.

Lepore said sanitizing fog machines were purchased at the outset of the pandemic and will be used going forward at The Dunk. The venue is scheduled to host men’s basketball NCAA Tournament games in March 2021, an event that typically carries significant economic benefits for downtown businesses.

“To be realistic, I don’t see these buildings running at capacity until there’s a vaccine,” Lepore said. “That’s a pretty scary thought.”

— bkoch@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7054

On Twitter: @BillKoch25

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