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After five years, arena is a 'huge hit'

DULUTH - History has been repeating itself lately.

Five years after country music legend George Strait played the inaugural concert of the Arena at Gwinnett Center, he returned to Georgia last month, back to the venue he helped open. A birthday cake was served in celebration, even though the official anniversary is this month.

In a few weeks, Gwinnett fans can expect another case of deja vu - when the Georgia Force arena football team returns to the Duluth venue after three seasons in Atlanta. The team was the true opening act at the arena five years ago Feb. 16.

These returning acts, officials say, are a sign of the continuing success of the arena, which turned Gwinnett from a sleepy suburb into a premier destination.

"It definitely had an impact in a lot of ways on the community," Arena manager Preston Williams said, pointing to the nearly 150 full-time jobs the attraction created, the impact on other businesses and the fun now available for local families. "It's impacting people's lives to some degree, from people who work here to people who look on it with pride and want to come here. ... I felt like it would always be successful. I was convinced going in, it would be exactly what's happened."

The measures of success are everywhere:

· 3.85 million attendance in five years.

· $76,754,998 in ticket sales.

· Big name acts for every age bracket, from the Wiggles to Hannah Montana to Justin Timberlake to the Eagles.

· Sports bonanzas, from the regular Gwinnett Gladiator games to the return of the Georgia Force, SEC showdowns and high school state tournaments.

· A political haven, which held the 2007 Georgia GOP Convention and even hosted presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson

"Having Hannah Montana come to Gwinnett ... it really shows the cache of Gwinnett," said Dick Sullivan, general manager for the Georgia Force, who decided to return to the suburban venue after the team played three seasons in Atlanta. "I have quickly found that the support from this county for arts, for education, for sports is really second to none."

But the arena hasn't only been an entertainment venue but also a community asset, the place where thousands of teenagers have graduated from high school.

"I like it because it can attract decent acts without having to drive all the way downtown," said Duluth resident Joan Sammond.

Sammond has attended numerous concerts by country music artists, including Strait, Toby Keith and Martina McBride, as well as seeing entertainment such as the Blue Man Group and animal acts - a favorite, as she is the director of the Georgia SPCA adoption center. Sammond said her 7-year-old son Connor loves the hockey and football games and her 13-year-old daughter Camryn was psyched to see Hannah Montana and the High School Musical tour.

"I don't want to have to drive all the way downtown for everything," Sammond said. "I'm glad it's here ... And it really hasn't been a problem with traffic."

While meticulous planning sessions and numerous studies predicted the Arena would be a hit, officials are now basking in that glory in the pursuit of the next dream: a minor-league baseball stadium north of Lawrenceville.

Williams is heading that effort, and construction will begin in a few months so the AAA Gwinnett Braves can begin the 2009 season next April.

The planning for the stadium, Williams said, has kept him from planning arena anniversary events, although the staff did sing "Happy Birthday" at last month's Strait concert and the Gladiators have marked their own fifth-year anniversary with several promotions.

And the Force's return March 1 will not go unnoticed, since the season opener will be broadcast on national television by ABC.

"The Gwinnett Arena is one of the top arenas in the league," Sullivan said, adding that the venue is perfect for a sport where fans want to be close to the action. Plus, the free parking is an added attraction for football fans who like to tailgate.

Based on his experience with the arena and the crowds it draws, Sullivan and others involved with Force owner Arthur Blank are considering Gwinnett as a possible venue for a major league soccer franchise.

"I think the entire community has grown and seen the value of bringing sports and entertainment to the county," Sullivan said, adding that several metro area locations are under consideration. "By bringing these types of assets to the county, all that does is attract more business, which means a higher tax base, which means more support for education ...."

Why not, considering the success of the hockey team?

"I'm proud of how we have fought against all of the odds of being a minor league hockey team in a major league sports market and made it successful both on and off the ice," Gladiators General Manager Steve Chapman said.

"A consistent winning tradition is extremely difficult to maintain, yet this team has appeared in the playoffs every year of its existence. And it's one thing to sell out a one-time event such as a concert - but just think, the Gladiators have staged 40-plus 'events' each year between mid-October and late-spring, and we continue to provide a good time and a real sense of pride for a whole lot of people."

Richard Tucker, the chairman of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau board, said he always knew the numbers would add up.

"There was never any doubt it would be successful," Tucker said, adding that he hopes for even more in the future with construction for a parking deck soon under way and with plans to build a full-service hotel and other amenities at the Arena.

"Gwinnett has had a great history of doing things the right way," Tucker said. "It's certainly been a monumental success by every measure, not only financially but how it's paid for itself. ... It's been a huge hit."