By Michael Tomberlin
A new stadium may be the shiny element of the $300 million expansion and renovation of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, but the substantive changes coming to Legacy Arena will position the campus for the next several decades.
Before it was viewed as the “beige bunker” many see it as today, the BJCC’s arena was a state-of-the-art venue rivaled by few in the U.S. when it was built in 1976.
Some of music’s biggest names played the main arena, from Elvis to Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan to Luciano Pavarotti, Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Grateful Dead to Taylor Swift, JAY Z to ZZ Top and Prince to Celine Dion. It has hosted major sporting events, from basketball to hockey to tennis and attractions from tractor pulls to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The $123 million renovation and expansion of the arena will include enhancements to improve the fan experience, circulation to and within the space and modernization aimed at the kind of amenities and interactions today’s fans and customers expect.
Customers aren’t just those who buy tickets to events, but the performers who have come to expect a certain level of comfort.
“The experience the customer has in your building is very important,” said Tad Snider, executive director and CEO of the BJCC. “They’re going to tell others about the kind of experience they had there.”
Much has changed in 42 years and while the arena has been renovated and improved in that time, there has been nothing as transformative as the work that is planned.
The changes will be apparent before ever setting foot inside Legacy Arena.
An added glass wall with floor space will allow for natural light within an expanded area perfect for exhibitions, showcases and other programming.
The primary entrance into the arena will be reoriented to Ninth Avenue and 19th Street North.
Landscaping and contrasting paint colors will make for a more aesthetically pleasing building.
Inside the arena, club-level boxes and VIP suites will be one noticeable difference. Modern seating will be installed, enhancements that build on the use of smartphones and technology will be added. Improved concessions are in the plan as well as an option that could allow for delivery to individual seats.
Other changes are planned for behind the scenes areas that will allow for the larger tour buses, increased number of tractor-trailers and other logistics support that comes with modern concert and entertainment productions. The courtyard that connects the arena to the concert hall and exhibition halls will also get an overhaul and all of the BJCC enhancements will complement the $174 million, 55,000-seat stadium being built nearby.
Snider said plans are to have the stadium completed in time for the 2021 World Games opening ceremony and the new Legacy Arena ready in the winter of 2022.
The BJCC expansion and renovations will be in conjunction with improvements to the interstate system through downtown Birmingham, specifically the enhancements to Interstate 59/20 and the CityWalk BHAM park under the elevated roadway.
Along with the success of venues like the Uptown entertainment district and Topgolf, the BJCC and surrounding area will be ready for the next half -century. The NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans have already announced the arena will be home to its G League team and the stadium will be home to UAB football and the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football.
Snider said the future is bright, but the new arena will include displays that give a nod to the venue’s past.
“New buildings are nice, but you can’t recreate the history,” he said.