San Jose’s arena is a model for The City to emulate 

When a group of international tennis stars begin play at the annual SAP Open in San Jose this week, they’ll be serving up a lot more than lightning aces.

The tournament is a steady reminder that big-time sports and entertainment venues are a key building block of urban growth, and few have done that better than the group that created and brought the HP Pavilion to the South Bay.

Since it opened in 1993, the downtown San Jose arena has been visited by nearly 25 million people and has hosted nearly 3,000 events. For someone who worked in San Jose before HP Pavilion was built and the Sharks skated into town, I can say with some assurance that the city’s downtown was transformed after voters approved the indoor stadium in 1988 and civic leaders have never looked back.

As evidenced by the yearly trek to the tennis tournament by such heavy hitters as Fernando Verdasco, Juan Martin del Potro and Lleyton Hewitt, the SAP Open is a big draw for pros and Bay Area tennis fans, but just a small schedule note in the Pavilion’s busy lineup. Even a weeknight visit to a Sharks game against a lowly opponent draws nearly capacity crowds to San Jose — a fact not lost on its big-city neighbors.

The SAP Open moved to San Jose more than a decade ago after all the venues in San Francisco had run their course, and the Cow Palace and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium had become so rundown they were no longer viable alternatives. Nearly all the concerts and family events that once called San Francisco home, from groups such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna to the Disney on Ice shows, have fled either to San Jose or Oakland and won’t be coming back.

The management team at Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, which runs HP Pavilion, has already upgraded the arena during its short lifetime and it’s considered among the top five event centers in the country — and beyond.

“I think we’re one of the top [event] buildings in the world because we care about the visitors’ experience,” said Bill Rapp, the longtime tournament director of the SAP. “From the marketing department to the ticket folks, we have a staff that’s second to none. It makes a huge difference.”

So it’s no wonder that groups of investors, including the Giants, are considering a new arena near AT&T Park, The City’s late response to an event landscape that has gone as cold as Candlestick Park.

Beyond the clubs, site-specific locations like Davies Symphony Hall and a few larger music venues like the Fillmore and the Warfield, San Francisco has no real general performance center anymore and is watching tens of millions in revenue float by to San Jose and Oakland.

Last year, the group signed a deal with the Port of San Francisco for development rights to Lot A, an adjoining ballpark property on the water. Giants President Larry Baer told me that the goal for 2011 is to “scope out” the best uses for the property, including a full-scale arena like HP Pavillion.

“We’re looking at everything from a performance arts center to corporate campuses,” he said. “We’re not foreclosing anything. But building a full-scale arena without an anchor tenant [like the Warriors or Sharks] is tough and right now we don’t have a tenant.”

Baer said that promoters have been all but begging for The City to put in a larger arena for the concerts and shows that have been bypassing San Francisco, and the Port location would be a natural draw.

That wasn’t the case for San Jose two decades ago, but then-Mayor Tom McEnery saw the expansion of the downtown core as one of the “economic building blocks” needed to revitalize The City.

“You can see with what happened to the Giants how important sports can be to a community,” he said. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to San Jose. And the arena has stood the test of time.”

At the time the arena was approved, the Sharks didn’t exist. The West Coast wing of professional tennis was centered in San Francisco.

Not any more. As the SAP’s home proves, that’s quite a swing.

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Ken Garcia

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