FLINT, MI—A multimillion-dollar reinvestment in Flint’s southeast side greets visitors to this rejuvenated home to hockey (and much more) with a shiny floor, bright lights, and orange and navy accents
Locals know this place well. As the area’s largest event center, it is host to graduation ceremonies for area high schools and colleges as well as any—and basically all—large shows and expos.
Some of us can’t help but still call it Perani Arena and remember it as the longtime home of the Flint Generals hockey team. Built in 1969, it suffered from years of neglect.
And, then came Rolf Nilsen and the Firebirds—bringing hockey back to Flint and new life back the Flint-area’s only sports, entertainment, and convention center now known as the Dort Federal Events Center.
Nilsen purchased the arena in December 2014, and ever since there have been a continuous stream of improvements taking place.
In the first year of ownership, $4 million was spent to renovate the facility. These improvements included new boards and glass for the ice arena, a high definition, center-ice scoreboard, LED lighting throughout the arena, and a pro-style locker room for the Firebirds including a theater for viewing footage, lounge and weight room.
More recently, all of the main restrooms have been refinished, the 30,000-square-foot, indoor field arena has been painted (including all walls, ceiling and bleachers) and there’s even a new high-tech Zamboni with a laser-leveling system for the best possible ice conditions.
“I would say the building has been off the radar for a couple of decades,” says Flint Firebirds’ President Costa Papista, “and we’re getting it back on the radar.”
Papista is keenly aware of the seemingly general opinion of the former arena and is working hard on its upswing. For the Firebirds’ home games, the arena is hosting close to 3,000 visitors on average and enjoyed a near-sellout crowd for the 2017-18 season closer last month.
Flint in one of only three cities in the United States with a franchise in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), a developmental organization for players ages 16 to 21. And it’s no exaggeration to say fans are seeing some of the best young talent in the world.
The OHL is one of three leagues that fall under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Up to 70 percent of the players in the National Hockey League, the premier league in North America, come from the CHL.
“On any given night, you’re watching future NHL stars,” says Papista. “We get some really high-profile players coming through, which is exciting.”
The Dort Federal Events Center is home to two arenas, which allows it to host trade shows, concerts, boxing matches, indoor car shows and more. More than 4,000 tickets were sold for the Loudwire Live 2017 concert last summer, and for the past two years it also has been home to the Chrome and Ice Back to the Bricks winter auto show.
Local high schools also use the facility for their sports teams including hockey, soccer, softball and more.
The arena aims not only to bring improvements to itself, but the city of Flint. Over the past two years, the Flint Firebirds alone have raised more than $200,000 for local charities and communities. In addition to donations, the Dort Federal Events Center also hosts Flint’s Inner-City Youth Hockey Program, a free program founded by longtime Flint firefighter Rico Phillips.
“The first thing that had to be done was doing the renovations, which were done right away,” Papista says. Then came the harder part: “Changing some hearts and minds.”
The arena is still working hard to leave its old reputation behind. “Convincing people that the arena has been renovated, looks fantastic, is safe ... changing hearts and minds takes time.”
For more information about the Dort Federal Event Center visit www.dorteventcenter.com
. For more information about the Flint Firebirds visit www.flintfirebirds.com