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Comcast Spectacor opts to pay $250M to upgrade Wells Fargo, instead of building a new center

Most of the construction at the Wells Fargo Center will take place over the next three summers. New premium seating will come as court- and rink-side suites - a new arena trend.

Comcast Spectacor says it will put $250 million into updating the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia. The arena was opened in 1996, at a cost of $210 million.
Comcast Spectacor says it will put $250 million into updating the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia. The arena was opened in 1996, at a cost of $210 million.Read moreBob Fernandez

The CoreStates Center in South Philadelphia opened on Aug. 13, 1996, with a private concert featuring the inimitable Ray Charles.

Multiple name changes, thousands of concerts and pro games, and one Guns 'N Roses riot later, the arena's owner, Comcast Spectacor, believes it's time for a major overhaul of the venue, now known as the Wells Fargo Center.

Arena executives said last week they would put $250 million into the still-evolving plan.

The bulk of the upgrade will come over the next three summers, with about 21,500 seats being replaced so as to not disrupt Flyers and Sixers games. Concerts will continue through the construction.

Gone will be some of the balcony luxury boxes, which are less popular than they were in the 1990s. Also, some of the black-colored seats below the mezzanine level will be zapped. But new premium seating will come in the form of court- and rink-side suites — a new arena trend.

The concourse hallways throughout the arena will be widened by several feet. New windows looking north toward the city skyline will add to the ambience for fans. There will be more places to buy food, cutting down lines. Digital screens will be added. Flooring will be replaced and player locker rooms redone.

First up for the upgrade: the mezzanine (200 level) this summer. Here, Comcast Spectacor will carve out two lounges by tearing out cinder block walls on the southeast and northeast corners, adding about 7,000 square feet for fans to drink and talk. Both were "void spaces" without public access, and one has served as the employee gym for years.

"Folks want a more social experience when they go to the game," Phil Weinberg, executive vice president and general counsel at Comcast Spectacor, said. "They want to get up and go back and text and show photos. They want it more open."

Next summer, Comcast Spectacor will upgrade the main concourse and seats on that level, possibly adding food concessions, and brightening the area as fans enter the arena.

In the summer of 2020, the "event level" — the area underneath the main concourse — will be upgraded. This is expected to include the court-side and rink-side suites that Comcast Spectacor says will not obstruct the view of other fans. These suites will be wedged into the arena underneath the existing seats. From these suites, fans could enter a pod of court- or rink-side seats to watch the game. Similar seating closer to the action is available at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City for the Utah Jazz and the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for the Raptors.

Weinberg said that Comcast Spectacor is doing a market study to determine how much premium seating will be part of the upgrade and where it  will go. There are now 126 luxury suites, but that number is expected to shrink.

Dave Scott, the chief executive officer and chairman of Comcast Spectacor, said the company was faced with the option of tearing down Wells Fargo and building a new venue on the same lot or gutting and rehabbing parts of the inside. One company official estimated a tear-down and build-new plan could have cost $750 million.

Comcast Spectactor opted to work with what it had, as have other operators at about two dozen other 1990s-era venues, Scott said.

"We're knocking out walls where we can," he said. "As you come through the grand entrance, it will be really open."

Comcast Spectacor is the Comcast Corp.-owned unit based in South Philadelphia that operates the Wells Fargo Center and the Flyers, and also manages stadiums and operates a concessions business.

The company paid off the original mortgage on the arena's construction in 2016, freeing up cash flow for the current renovations and changes, Weinberg said. The initial Wells Fargo upgrades — among them, a rewiring of the arena for high-speed internet and WiFi — were prompted in 2016 by the Democratic National Convention. Phil Laws, vice president of operations at Comcast Spectacor, said that about 250 construction workers are expected to be at the arena this summer on the project, which will be done by 2021.

Biggest Wells Fargo crowds

  1. Hockey: 20,327 for the Flyers vs. Blackhawks game on June 9, 2010.

  2. Basketball: 21,305 for the 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls on April 17, 1998.

  3. Concert: 21,424 for Backstreet Boys 'Into the Millennium' Tour on Sept. 29, 1999.