Save Your Seat Buyers Await Arena Solutions

For the captains of Arkansas industry and higher education, owning a piece of Alltel Arena and securing a bird's eye view of Central Arkansas' finest in sports and entertainment was worth investments of as much as $44,000 in the Save Your Seat Program.

In fact, contributions by the 254 individuals who had purchased licenses for 971 seats by mid-October averaged $7,645. A payment of $2,000 was required to license each seat at the new $80 million arena in North Little Rock.

Total investments in the program had reached $1,942,000 last month and arena officials were continuing to sell licenses.

But interviews with some high-dollar contributors identified by an Arkansas Business analysis of the arena's Save Your Seat database show the promises of priority seatings beyond those guaranteed for basketball and hockey games haven't materialized.

Key participants, including one suite holder promised a high priority for additional seats outside his $350,000 skybox, are complaining that their contracts with the troubled arena have been broken.

At least one, Lexicon Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tom Schueck, is planning further action in the absence of a fix for seating problems that may exacerbate the obstacles that already stem from flaws in the arena's construction.

Schueck, the founder of Schueck Steel Co., says he is drafting a letter to arena manager Michael Marion warning that he will take further action if the SYS problems aren't resolved by mid-January.

"We paid $2,000 a seat for whatever reason — whether it be out of civic duty or a desire to have the same seats for various functions," Schueck says. "We've got $16,000 stuck in this situation, and you might say we're sitting in the corner of the end zone."

Others involved in discussions with Marion and his staff include Larry Alman, who paid $16,000 for eight saved seats for friends and clients of Little Rock-based Sol Alman Co., and Jennings Osborne, the Little Rock medical research executive and Arkansas' patriarch of Christmas lights.

He bought a Silver suite in the arena and additional seats through the SYS program. Osborne could not be reached for comment, but Alman says Osborne twice found his friends sitting in different rows in the arena despite a contractual promise that seating for concerts and other sporting events would be "equal or better" than those SYS members are allowed to choose for Arkansas RiverBlades hockey games and University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans basketball games.

Bob Russell, chairman of the Pulaski County Multi-Purpose Civic Center Board, says the only problems he's aware of stemmed from a demand made by promoters of the Elton John concert that SYS seating be limited to every other row.

Alman and his associates watched the pop legend from Section 116, in a corner near the arena's main entrance.

Alman's $16,000 normally puts him and his friends center court in Rows 1 and 2 of Section 119 for basketball games and near the most popular goal in Section 109 for hockey.

Schueck, who sits low at center court in Section 107 for basketball and Section 109 for hockey, says he's had to drive to the facility to negotiate seating changes for other events.

Arena staffers fax advance notice of concerts and other special events to SYS ticket holders 5 to 10 days in advance of general sales to allow program members to request special seating.

"You can just go up to the window and buy better seats," he says. "We've had to sit down and argue with them and jawbone until they gave us better seats."

The People Behind the Names

No one is complaining about SYS seats for the RiverBlades and Trojans games. Few seem concerned these days about the arena's safety. But some question the arena's method of assigning licenses.

Bryan Jeffrey, a Little Rock CPA with Jeffrey, Phillips, Mosley & Scott, is listed as paying $36,000 to the SYS program for a guarantee of 18 seats.

That makes him second, behind Jim Womble, financial services division leader for Acxiom Corp., and UALR Chancellor Charles E. Hathaway for individuals who spent the most. Womble and Hathaway each bought 22 seats for $44,000 — and both bought the SYS licenses on behalf of their employers.

Jeffrey says he was buying for friends. Marion concedes he told members like Jeffrey to buy blocks of seats under one name and with one check to ease the staff's efforts to seat friends and associates together.

Likewise, Gene Fortson, president of Sterling Paint Co., bought licenses on behalf of himself, the company's owner, and three friends. The combined purchases, all under Fortson's name, rank Sterling No. 6 on the list of SYS company affiliations.

"We're working to change that," says Jeffrey, who's also upset at the seats assigned him for special events.

Acxiom spokesman Dale Ingram says the company bought 22 seats for employees and their families. Other individual purchases by employees brought the company's SYS total to $64,000 — ranking the company first ahead of UALR's $44,000.

Russell, the arena board chairman and owner of Russell Chevrolet-Honda, bought six SYS tickets for $12,000 and may have the best basketball seats in the house.

"I've had those same seats at UALR games for 20 years," he says of his reservation on Row A of Section 120.

The first solicitation letters for the program went to UALR supporters. SYS members must pay an additional $150 per seat each year to the UALR Trojan Foundation.

Russell and others chose a different strategy for hockey. While basketball SYS money centers around the court, the hockey money spreads through 16 sections of the arena's lower level.

"You want to sit where the RiverBlades are shooting at the goal two out of every three periods," Russell says. "Opinions differ on whether it's good to sit behind the glass."

The computer study also showed that interest in the arena isn't limited to Little Rock and North Little Rock. Seventy-one percent — or 181 of the 254 individuals in the system — are from Little Rock. Another 31, or 12.2 percent are from North Little Rock.

SYS seat holders also includes individuals from Benton, Cabot, Conway, Crossett, England, Hope, Jacksonville, Mabelvale, Maumelle, McCrory, Pangburn, Prescott, Russellville, Searcy, Sheridan, Sherwood, Stuttgart, Sweet Home and Texarkana. Tour company owner and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority member George Billingsley bought two seats. He lives in Bella Vista.

"We're avid fans, and we have a son living in Little Rock. He's also quite a sports fan," Billingsley says. But he hasn't made the trip yet.

"We want to make sure it's going to stand up," he says.

Statehouse Also Pressured by Time, East Says

Bob East, chief executive officer of East-Harding Inc., one of the firms that built the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, says he was under as much time pressure to build that facility as the construction management firm that built the Alltel Arena.

East was responding to a comment made by an attorney last week comparing the construction jobs at the Alltel Arena, Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center expansion and the Hot Springs Convention Center ("Alltel's Odyssey of Steel and Concrete," Nov. 15).

"We had the biggest convention ever scheduled in Arkansas on June 6," says East, whose firm worked with Hensel-Phelps Construction Co. as the construction manager on the Statehouse Convention Center. "That was scheduled about five or six months previous to our opening-completion date. We had a major, major convention. We had absolutely no option of not making the June 6 date."

East-Harding and Hensel-Phelps finished the center on June 6, the day of the American Taekwondo Association's national tournament, which drew more than 10,000 contestants.

The construction management team of Vratsinas Construction Co. and Turner Construction Co. were unable to make their contractually scheduled completion date of Aug. 11. The first two events at the arena, scheduled Oct. 12 and Oct. 23, had to be canceled because of construction problems.