Arena’s neglect opened door for Rossford; For decades, owner declines to renovate East Toledo facility

By Joshua Benton and Michael D. Sallah
Blade Staff Writers

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It was a critical time for the Toledo Sports Arena. The country’s top acts weren’t showing up anymore. The physical plant was crumbling. City officials were calling it unsafe and a contributor to local crime.

It was 1975, and some arena executives were trying to persuade owner Virgil Gladieux to make some much needed improvements. Things like fixing the leaky roof, and adding air conditioning to make the summer nights bearable.

“We said to Virgil, `We’ll take out a small business loan of maybe $3 million, and we can really refurbish the place,”‘ remembers Harold Shaw, then in charge of the arena’s advertising and publicity.

But Mr. Gladieux said no.

“I can’t tell you why. I don’t know why,” Mr. Shaw said. “They put in the cheapest materials they could.”

For decades, people – ranging from city officials to sports fans to his own employees – told Virgil Gladieux to fix up the Sports Arena.

For decades, he said no.

That lack of improvements opened the door for last week’s announcement of a $48 million arena and amphitheater complex in suburban Rossford. It will be in direct competition with the Sports Arena, and it is exactly the kind of development feared by advocates of downtown revitalization.

One of the leaders of the suburban plan, Rossford Mayor Mark Zuchowski, said that if the Sports Arena had been substantially improved five years ago, his city would be thinking twice about breaking ground in May.

“That would have changed our plans,” he said. “We might have done something else, like just the amphitheatre. The reason what we’re doing is so easy is that there is such a need for it in northwest Ohio.”

Throughout his life, Mr. Gladieux used his substantial wealth and political influence to stave off any potential competitors downtown. For years, he fought a downtown convention center, which he feared would bleed business from his arena.

But the biggest threat to the Sports Arena isn’t coming from downtown. The Rossford announcement – and all the missed opportunities to renovate – could drive professional hockey out of Toledo once again, and relegate the Sports Arena, once the region’s premier venue, to second-class status.

The Toledo Sports Arena opened on Nov. 13, 1947, to praise and excitement. The building “symbolizes great progress in a great city,” said then-Vice Mayor Michael V. DiSalle.

With 5,160 seats, it was bigger than the city’s two major venues at the time: the University of Toledo field house and the Civic Center Auditorium. It was one of the first privately built arenas after World War II. It opened with Holiday on Ice, and was soon attracting some of the country’s top talent.

Elvis Presley played there. So did Liberace, Guy Lombardo, and Danny Thomas.

Virgil Gladieux was the building’s primary owner. He had made a fortune by selling Buddies Box lunches to Toledo factory workers, 8,000 a day during the 1940s. He issued $100 stock certificates to hundreds of Toledo businessmen to help fund the $750,000 building.

For decades, it was the top place in town for events, from circuses to concerts to rodeos.

But as the arena aged, its drawing power waned, as performers began to complain about its small size, its poor acoustics, and its dilapidated condition. What followed were years of booking smaller shows and sometimes embarrassing episodes:

* The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was forced to eliminate its famous human cannonball act and its highest-flying acrobatics because of the low ceiling. The high-wire act, normally at 36 feet, was performed at half that.

* When Liberace performed at the arena, he was forced to play an entire concert at a piano with one foot pedal missing. “Liberace almost killed me,” said Mr. Shaw, who promoted the concert during his 30-year affiliation with the arena.

* In the early 1970s, city officials began to complain about a lack of security at arena events, which they said led to underage drinking, drug use, and fights. In 1973, rocker Alice Cooper stormed off stage after just two songs because his band was being pelted by objects thrown by audience members. The band’s guitarist got cuts on his face and hand after a firecracker shattered a stage light.

* Neighbors complained about the arena’s impact on the neighborhood. “People were complaining about the parking lot because it was a mess,” said Ray Nies, a city councilman from 1969 to 1985.

* The arena’s ice-making machine was so slow that it couldn’t get a solid sheet of ice ready in time for some hockey games. “After about 20 minutes, the ice would start breaking, and sparks would start flying from the skates,” Mr. Shaw said. “They were down to the concrete.”

Things got so bad for the Sports Arena that, in 1974, Mr. Gladieux took out a full-page ad in The Blade defending his arena, saying it was big enough for a city of Toledo’s size and that he had spent more than $200,000 on improvements, such as new lighting and restrooms. But those were rarely more than maintenance required to keep the arena functioning, Mr. Shaw said.

Mr. Gladieux even tried to sell the arena to the city, according to then-Mayor Harry Kessler.

“But The Blade was opposed to the idea,” he said. “And it was just dropped.” At the time, the mayor questioned whether the city could ever make money off the deal.

Mr. Gladieux did more than just defend his arena. He tried to kill other ones on the horizon.

In the 1970s, city leaders were pushing for construction of a convention center downtown. Mr. Gladieux fought them for several years. Mr. Shaw said Mr. Gladieux provided substantial financial support to the Affiliated League for Equal Representation and Taxation Alliance, a group that was organizing to fight the project.

Mr. Gladieux won the first round in 1973, when Toledoans voted to amend the city charter to require a vote on any spending for a convention center. But local officials got around that limitation by having the county and state pay for most of the convention center’s cost.

By 1982, it had become a foregone conclusion that a convention center would be built. Mr. Gladieux tried to persuade area leaders to build it on the site of the Sports Arena. Instead, officials chose a site on the west bank of the Maumee River.

When construction started on the SeaGate Centre in 1986, Mr. Gladieux called a special stockholders meeting and asked to buy all their stock. He offered them $50 a share, half of what they had paid 39 years earlier. They accepted.

Mr. Gladieux said at the time that he wanted to have full control so he could fix up the arena.

“I want it so that I’m not ashamed of it,” he said. “I just want to keep the facility decent.”

He cited the SeaGate’s competition as the reason for the proposed major renovations, which included a new roof. But they still never materialized.

In 1996, with Mr. Gladieux in declining health, his son, Tim, took a more prominent role in the family business. Arena officials finally relented in 1996 and announced plans for a $17 million renovation – the largest capital improvement ever proposed for the arena.

It was to be expanded to accommodate 10,800 seats for hockey – doubling the current size – and 13,200 for concerts. There were to be luxury boxes and an elevated roof.

Mr. Gladieux died in 1997, passing the family business to Tim, who was to oversee the renovations. But he was stymied by infighting among the owners of the Toledo Storm, the East Coast Hockey League franchise. Several minority partners in the team were accusing majority owner Barry Soskin of fiscal impropriety, potentially putting the team’s future in doubt.

“We couldn’t get a loan to pay for the renovations with our major tenant up in the air,” Tim Gladieux said.

At the same time, Mr. Gladieux was asking Detroit Red Wings officials to consider moving their American Hockey League team from Glens Falls, N.Y., to the Sports Arena. But he said his proposal fell on deaf ears.

After long discussions, Mr. Gladieux agreed to buy the Storm for an undisclosed sum, making him the owner of the arena and its major tenant.

The sale was closed on Nov. 4, and arena officials began pushing ahead. They still had not decided whether to renovate the building or to erect an arena from scratch.

He said the family food-service empire, V/Gladieux Enterprises – the descendant of his father’s Buddie Boxes – kept him so busy that he didn’t have enough time to spend on planning for renovations.

“We’re a big company, operating in 10 states,” he said. “I was trying to address the arena expansion while dealing with all these other businesses.”

Then came the surprise Rossford announcement. The Glens Falls team would be moving to the new suburban arena to built near I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike.

Rossford’s new arena would feature 9,200 seats for hockey, 10,500 for basketball games, and 12,000 for concerts.

Next to it would be built a 15,000-seat open-air amphitheater to rival the Pine Knob Music Theatre near Clarkston, Mich.

Red Wings officials had promised him just a few months before that they would not bring a new team to the area to compete with the Storm, Mr. Gladieux said.

The day after Rossford’s arena announcement, Mr. Gladieux announced plans to replace his aging Sports Arena by building an arena of his own. But he admits that he does not have a site, a site plan, or financing set up.

He promised to begin construction within 90 days, but has since acknowledged that would occur only “if everything really falls into place.”

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, in a letter sent Monday, said: “I have nothing but praise for the good officials of Rossford for their vision, gusto, and guts. Tim Gladieux has no one to blame but himself.”

Mr. Gladieux said that was an unfair accusation from the mayor, and that he had been working hard to push renovations ahead since buying the Storm four months ago.

But Rossford’s Mayor Zuchowski said the decisions not to renovate and upgrade the Sports Arena was a major reason for his city’s decision to build.

“If there had been changes at the Sports Arena, that probably would have changed things.”