Before there was an arena, there was a car dealership.
A Wilkie Buick dealership—owned by university trustee Daniel Polett—stood at 1776 N. Broad St. before the groundbreaking of the Apollo of Temple, now known as the Liacouras Center, on Jan. 25, 1996. The Baptist Temple, now the Temple Performing Arts Center, was boarded up and Morgan Hall’s current site housed a university office building and parking lot.
There was a lack of thriving businesses and student life on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, said Richard Englert, chancellor of Temple and former university president. Not many tourists and visitors frequented the area, he added.
“People saw Temple almost entirely from their car windows as they sped up and down Broad Street,” Englert said.
Temple’s total student body was less than 18,000 two decades ago.
“The whole goal [of the Liacouras Center] was to get people on campus,” Englert said.
The university looked at various potential sites large enough to hold thousands of people, but within the university’s footprint, Hilty said.
“There was considerable concern given to the community,” university historian James Hilty said of the beginning stages of planning the center.
“There was the understanding that the university wasn’t going to step on the community when they moved in,” he added.
The original plan was to build the center at 10th and Berks streets because of its accessibility to SEPTA, like a “Madison Square Garden kind of hub,” Hilty said.
The community was accounted for in the planning phases, Hilty added.
Temple made an agreement with community developer Floyd Alston, who founded the Beech Corp., now Beech Interplex, in 1990. He worked on revitalizing the community and making it more accessible for residents, students and visitors, particularly businesses on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. A community center was built on the street for neighborhood residents to use.
Temple built the Liacouras Center and leased it back to Alston, who accepted the building on behalf of the community, Hilty said.
Temple received $33 million in government funding for the $85 million project and projections of revenue and costs were laid out as the building process progressed, Englert said.
A dispute between City Council president John Street and then-university president Peter Liacouras arose when Street demanded that $5 million for rehabilitating neighborhood housing be given to an independent community-controlled development group, the New York Times reported.
The debate between City Council and Temple continued until the university pledged $12 million to revitalize the Cecil B. Moore area.
A parking lot was built on 15th Street and Montgomery Avenue and women and underrepresented minorities were hired locally to work at the new center, Englert said.
The Apollo of Temple opened on Dec. 8, 1997 with a performance of Peter and the Wolf and a 76-61 men’s basketball win against California State University of Fresno.
The Liacouras Center became the venue for basketball games, concerts, local high school graduations, entertainment, as well as the commencement center for matriculated freshman. Prior to this, commencement was held in the now-demolished Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center.
“Part of the problem Temple had for years was that it was spread out in too many places,” Hilty said. “We once had an ad campaign that said Owls were everywhere and it was kind of true.”
In 2000, the Apollo of Temple was renamed to the Liacouras Center, after former university president, Liacouras.
Over the course of a decade, from 1997 to 2007, the Liacouras Center has served more than 2.3 million patrons.
“What the Liacouras Center did was give us visibility in the community and give the community a sense of the basic well-meaning,” Englert said. “It’s become the hub for much greater development at Temple and in the neighboring community.”
Englert added that the Liacouras Center “became a recruitment showcase,” and was one of the factors in the rising enrollment rate.
“At the time, the plan for this facility was visionary, and over time it has been transformational,” Englert said. “Investment in a great vision has great payoff. … We can look back at 20 years of experience and see if it was worth the investment.”
Many of the same considerations from when the center was in its early stages are reappearing about the current stadium talks, like parking, traffic issues, usage and concerns from the community.
“What the Liacouras Center experience shows is that these are solvable problems,” Englert said. “It’s important to listen to concerns. … My gut level says there’s another vision that’s going to pay off because we have an example of how that’s been done.”
Hilty said a stadium could add to the “collegiate environment” like the Liacouras Center did.
“The stadium atmosphere at a college football game is a huge boost for student and alumni morale,” Hilty said. ”The Linc isn’t ours, so you don’t get the feeling that it’s our place.”
Hilty added that a stadium would also require further consideration.
The “commitment to the team and culture of big-time football,” like coaches, practice facilities and maintenance goes beyond the initial cost of $100 million it would take to build the stadium, Hilty said.
“Just having a stadium doesn’t guarantee you’re going to draw people to it,” he added. “Some people feel that’s a way to identify with the school. … We have to decide what it’s going to look like 15 years from now.”
Lian Parsons can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons