SBJ/Jan. 10-16, 2011/In Depth

Recession helped put designers on new paths

The economic downturn of the past three years put many sports designers out of work. Others branched out on their own after seeing how the end of the major league building boom was leaving fewer opportunities for the growing number of firms chasing those projects. Following is a look at four designers still working in sports and a fifth waiting to get back in the game.


MICHAEL HALLMARK,
principal, Future
Cities

Hallmark saw where sports facility development was headed a decade before the Great Recession stunted its growth. He formed Future Cities in 2000 after developing sports practices at Ellerbe Becket and NBBJ.

“In my case, we anticipated both the slowdown in pro facilities and the proliferation of architectural firms engaged in what little work existed,” he said. “That sounded like a bad combination to me. I purposely repositioned my work in the last 10 years to move away from big new buildings, which I thought had a limited cycle, and started to look at extensive sponsor-funded renovations at arenas and stadiums. That’s one market, and I think the other one is ancillary and urban development around them to get owners and cities focused on that.”

Hallmark, based in Los Angeles, is working with Arizona State University officials on a study for how to build and finance a new football stadium using tax dollars tied to a proposed 480-acre, mixed-use development in Tempe. In a model similar to tax-increment financing, a large portion of land surrounding campus has been converted into a new Facilities District, with taxes from new development within that area used to fund school programs.

“I think there is going to be a big shift in the future of fulfilling the promise of public investments in these projects and trying to make those kinds of urban locations better and smarter places,” Hallmark said. “That’s a little bit about what’s happening at ASU.”


TOM PROEBSTLE
principal, Generator
Studio

Proebstle got his start at Ellerbe Becket and was a founding partner for Crawford Architects in Kansas City in 2001 before leaving the firm in February 2009, a decision he said was mutual between him and the company.

In June 2009, Proebstle and Mike Kress, another former Ellerbe and Crawford designer, formed Generator Studio. Together, they have kept busy with several projects outside of sports, completing a master plan to redevelop Dodge City, Kan.’s historic downtown district, designing a new Holiday Inn Express in North Kansas City, creating a second master plan for a potential metal-casting plant to build wind turbines in Chillicothe, Mo., and putting a “spit shine” on a few post-World War II era shopping centers in suburban Kansas City.

At the same time, Proebstle and Kress have kept their sports relationships intact, and it has paid off. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s new ownership group hired Generator Studio to design improvements to the St. Pete Times Forum, details of which team officials are expected to announce this month. Tod Leiweke, CEO of the NHL club and the arena, came from the Seattle Seahawks, for whom Proebstle designed Virginia Mason Athletic Center, the NFL club’s two-year-old practice facility in Renton, Wash.

“On the sports side, we are pursuing RFPs carefully,” Proebstle said. “Honestly, we are not going to sit there and compete with Populous and Ellerbe Becket, but we have relationships in place where we will pursue work. People thought we were crazy for starting our own firm, but we spent a lot of time on our business plan and shared it with a lot of folks with much more expertise than we had. Architects tend to overpromise and underdeliver, and we’ve learned some hard lessons. We’re cautious and taking that extra measure to underpromise and overdeliver.”

Advances in technology tied to architecture have enabled Generator Studio to keep overhead expenses to a minimum, a key tactic for survival during the downturn. For example, Proebstle and Kress found free timesheet software online to track their hours working for a client. At Crawford, a salaried employee was paid to manage that important part of the business, Proebstle said.

“The differences are miles apart with technology,” he said.


JONATHAN COLE
founding principal,
Pendulum Studio

Cole, a licensed architect specializing in ballpark design, worked for HNTB and Populous, two of the largest sports design firms, and 360 Architecture, a smaller company, before launching his own practice in January 2008 with partner Devan Case. The early warning signs of the pending recession did not deter Cole from going out on his own. He saw a niche to fill, developing minor league parks, and saw some projects on the horizon that he could pursue.

After securing a 36-month bank loan and a “simple but forward-thinking business plan,” Cole hung out the Pendulum shingle. Three years later, Pendulum’s staff has grown to seven designers. Cole completed the design for a $12 million park in central Illinois that opened in 2010 as the home of the Frontier League’s Normal CornBelters, an independent club, and Heartland Community College’s baseball program. The facility stands out for its dirt-free, synthetic Sprinturf surface.

The Green Bay Bullfrogs of the independent Northwoods League hired Pendulum to develop a $10 million park, pending financing for the project.

Pendulum, after beating out Populous and 360 to win the job in Normal, is going head-to-head with Populous for the job to design a new park for the Beloit (Wis.) Snappers, the Minnesota Twins’ low Class A affiliate.

As teams at the lower levels of sports grapple with the same financial issues tied to new facilities as their big league brothers, Cole sees opportunities to work with those clubs to find new ideas to generate revenue. At the same time he formed Pendulum, Cole started a company called Modular Products that designs temporary loge boxes at a fraction of the cost to produce permanent suites. The $35,000 aluminum structure, packaged with 15 swivel chairs, drink rail, buffet space, mini-refrigerator and roof cover, provides an affordable alternative to spending six figures to build suites in a traditional ballpark setting, Cole said.

Modular Products has seen some traction through a few deals at the minor league level, and in turn, is starting to attract interest from big league teams, Cole said.


TOM TINGLE,
vice president,
Intelligent Engineering

Tingle was a vice president at HNTB and leader of the firm’s sports practice when the company laid him off in March. For many in the industry who know the business structure within HNTB, it came as a surprise considering Tingle was the firm’s front man for sports business development, the go-to guy for a company whose name is synonymous with major college football stadium renovations.

Four months later came another surprise. Tingle jumped over to the vendor’s side after landing a job with Intelligent Engineering, a British structural seating manufacturer. It makes what the company describes as a “sandwich plate system,” a seating bowl product with polyurethane wedged between two layers of steel. It’s much lighter and more affordable for teams to install for new construction and renovations than precast concrete structures.

As Tingle weighed his options after HNTB, he thought about where the industry was moving and technology’s role in it. He could have stayed on the design side but the prospect of joining an international company trying to break into North American sports intrigued him.

Intelligent Engineering’s product is being used to build the aquatics center for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, a 15,000-seat facility with two huge wings that can be unbolted after the event, leaving 3,000 to 4,000 permanent seats. Domestically, the firm is targeting a few college projects. The firm submitted a bid to build a structure for outdoor club seats tied to the renovation of Cal-Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium and has talked to University of North Carolina-Charlotte officials about using its product for a new football stadium in development at that school.

“This was an interesting option and a significant challenge,” Tingle said. “In a business development role, it is a challenge to close a deal, but to try to win over an industry that is status quo [for building sports facilities] ... getting them to change their thinking was exciting to me. A number of people questioned my sanity, but I am very passionate about it. We all try to leave our marks on an industry, and I feel very good that this is another way of leaving my mark.”


STEVE HOTUJAC,
former principal,
Populous

Hotujac, a veteran sports designer specializing in pursuing major league arena projects, has been out of work since being laid off from Populous in September 2009.

It’s not by choice. Hotujac, after entertaining several offers from other sports architecture firms, had accepted a job with a company and was supposed to start work Dec. 6 until a family health issue involving his girlfriend came to the forefront. Hotujac, who declined at this point to identify his would-be employer, has put that opportunity on hold until her medical issue is resolved.

“I would hate to take something and then not be able to do anything with it,” Hotujac said, referring to his current situation. “I’ve had people pursuing me, which makes me feel good and is flattering, but as of now I couldn’t give it 100 percent.”

There are not many sports design marketers with more valuable contacts than Hotujac. Between his 4 1/2 years at Populous and his previous tenure at Ellerbe Becket, Hotujac was instrumental in signing deals to develop more than a dozen NHL and NBA facilities, most recently Amway Center in Orlando. He was also Populous’ lead marketer for developing KFC Yum! Center, a college basketball arena with pro-style amenities in Louisville, Ky.

“Financially, I’m in a good enough position to afford the luxury to take time off and not get killed [economically],” Hotujac said. “It was tough to lose my job at the time, but I have let the emotions subside. I could see the writing on the wall. At Populous, I was the lead marketing guy for arenas. When business [got] bad, the marketing staff took the hit.”

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