A Man’s Legacy, Lowell’s Pride Strong at Tsongas Center
LOWELL -- Paul Tsongas wasn’t well.
Ailing from a bone marrow transplant, his wife Niki received a call from then-City Manager Brian Martin. He wanted to know how Paul would feel about the city naming the venue after him.
“He was so touched by it,” Niki recalled Friday night.
But Paul, the late U.S. senator, never had the chance to enter the Tsongas Arena, which opened on this day 20 years ago. The Lowell native had died a year earlier.
“Paul never saw it. He never saw it,” said Niki, who represents the 3rd District in Congress.
“He would be so proud,” she added.
“Proud” was repeated several times by officials Friday night as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Tsongas Arena, now named the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell. The building opened on Jan. 27, 1998, when the UMass Lowell hockey team faced Dartmouth College.
Once a dividing issue in the city -- leading to nasty debates, highlighted by a ballot referendum that passed with 53 percent of the vote -- the venue has flourished over the last several years.
Families from across the region and state descend upon the center every week for sports, concerts and other events. It’s considered one of the most popular entertainment venues in New England.
“It’s not just any arena,” Tsongas said. “It’s something we can very proud of.”
More than 300,000 people attend events at the Tsongas Center each year, and UMass Lowell ranks in the top 10 in the nation in NCAA Division I hockey attendance.
The Tsongas Center and LeLacheur Park have changed the perception of Lowell, and made it a “destination city,” according to UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.
“I hope that everyone agrees this has been a huge win-win for the city and for the university,” Moloney said.
“Families love this venue,” she later added. “It’s a great place for families to have a night out.”
Not everyone in the 1990s thought the Tsongas Arena was the best idea.
The arena effort launched in 1993 when a delegation of political and business leaders made an informal pitch to the state for financial help to build an arena in Lowell. That group was led by Paul, a former senator at the time.
Many in the city questioned if the city could afford the multi-million dollar project, leading to a slate of anti-tax and anti-arena City Council candidates.
However, the ballot referendum passed, 10,637 to 9,747, meaning the city could spend money on the project.
While a fierce debate at first, the issue went from a “divider, then it became a uniter, and then it became an igniter,” said former state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos.
“Once the decision was made, everybody got in the same boat and rowed in the same direction to make it the best possible outcome,” he said.
“And as an igniter, it ignited success in this city,” Panagiotakos added.
When the arena was built in 1998, the city and the university chipped in $4 million each, with the state putting up an additional $20 million in public funding.
Then-state Rep. John Cox, later the city manager, was credited for securing that state funding.
“Congratulations to the delegation, to the city and to the university for a great job, and let’s hope for continued success for at least another 20-plus years,” Cox said.
While successful for the last several years, the venue was struggling in the 2000s. The city ended up running a deficit for many years of about $1.3 million annually. In addition to the home of the UMass Lowell hockey team, it was home to the American Hockey League affiliate of the New Jersey Devils -- founded as the Lowell Lock Monsters and then the Lowell Devils. In 2010, the Devils moved the franchise to Albany.
Along with the financial difficulties for the city, the Tsongas Arena needed several improvements in the 2000s. That’s when UMass Lowell came swooping in to acquire the arena from the city for $1 in 2010, renaming it the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell.
The center, a catalyst for the city, underwent extensive renovations, including the addition of a video scoreboard and sound system, luxury boxes and club space.
“The ultimate decision to transfer the arena to the university was a brilliant strategy that helped boost the university’s profile in the effort to become a Division 1 athletic university,” Martin, the former city manager, said.
“Paul would be so proud of all that’s happened in Lowell,” he later added. “And if he was alive today, he’d probably be found picking up litter around the arena before the event tonight.”
While she didn’t pick up trash before the game Friday night, Niki dropped the puck at center ice before the River Hawks defeated the Boston College Eagles, 3-2.
Other speakers Friday night included Sen. Eileen Donoghue; Rep. Thomas Golden; Rep. David Nangle; Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy; Lowell Mayor Bill Samaras; and John Costello, former editor and publisher of The Sun, and a former chairman of the Arena and Civic Stadium Commission.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.