For Jazz, Vivint Arena remodel means that Utah’s NBA franchise has finally grown up

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jazz unveil renovations for the arena, starting with the J-Note statue and then offering self-guided tours of the venue on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. The arena features new seats, new concourse areas, new anchor restaurants and open spaces for more social experiences at Jazz games and events.

In 1991, long before he would become CEO of the Utah Jazz, Greg Miller had a critical task at hand: installing the directional signage in what was going to be the Delta Center.

A subcontractor on the project, Miller had a tight deadline and found himself haunting the construction site at all hours. On several of those overnight sessions, he would see his father, Larry Miller, driving around in a golf cart, stopping and inspecting the unfinished corridors.

The site looked sturdy — the Jazz owner less so.

“He wasn’t sleeping,” Greg Miller said. “I remember seeing all the weight of his responsibilities catching up to him. I thought he might have a heart attack or something because he was all tired and worn out.”

Larry Miller died in 2009, long after his project was populated by thousands of fans each night to watch his basketball team, but long before he could have seen or known what that building would become.

Gail Miller, his wife who now heads the corporate empire that bears his name, testified to those heady early days recently, as she rededicated the building, which had just wrapped on an estimated $125 million renovation project. Back then, she said, they had to get “a quick education” on arena construction.

Much of the look and structure of the arena that Larry Miller built remains intact. But Vivint Smart Home Arena’s renovations have been carefully considered, with the benefit of 26 years of experience, advances in technology and countless hours of research. And while the construction took only 129 days to complete, each move was meticulously planned.

The new home of the Jazz represents what the Miller oganization views as a maturation of not only its headquarters but also its franchise. Team President Steve Starks was recently told, to his satisfaction, that the look of the arena just seemed “more adult.”

On the day the Jazz unveiled it last month, there was little anxiety over whether it would go over well.

Personal touches

Before any new bolts went in the building, before any walls were torn down, the Jazz did their homework.

Starks pointed to 18 months of research as the key to making the new Vivint Smart Home Arena what it is. They had to study the latest in arena construction. They had to ask the fans what they wanted. They had to plan for certain parts — like new escalators — to be ordered months in advance of when they were installed, and some in advance of when the building actually began.

“By the time we started it,” project executive Jeremy Blanck said, “we knew we were going to get it done.”

There’s the obvious: Seats are now cushioned, much of the gray stone is covered by white walls and familiar local joints now serve food. But there are less obvious touches that were just as carefully considered.

Touches like the 400 or so digital signs that dot the arena now, enabling the Jazz to convert to digital signage and not waste material or time installing new poster board. There are the cameras lining the tiers of the arena and wired to a central security system, empowered with facial recognition software to help find faces in the event a security breach. Even the restrooms of the suites were considered: Rather than keep them inside the suite, the renovations have moved to make more centralized restrooms on the club level for more discreet use, which fans requested.

The most personal touches, of course, have been reserved for the team. The front office now occupies the most robust office and video room it’s ever had in the arena, while coach Quin Snyder has a wall completely covered by whiteboards (and covers for when he’s not in the room) in his office. The home locker room (which is equipped with safes for each player) is now an oval to facilitate socializing before and after games, but the showers are now individualized for privacy.

It’s not just that the Jazz now believe that they have the largest locker room facilities in the NBA that make them special — it’s what’s in them.

A sense of stewardship

Roughly 2,000 people worked roughly 500,000 hours over 129 days in rotating shifts to finish the renovations. As one group came out midday, another would come in to work into the wee hours of the morning.

It was common that the Jazz would buy those men and women lunch.

“We really wanted to make sure the people who worked on the project feel like part of the team and part of the family,” Starks said. “It’s the community’s team. We believe the workers embraced that, too. They took a certain pride in finishing it on time.”

A common word Gail Miller uses to describe herself is “steward.” She said during the dedication that she views herself as a keeper of a community resource, someone who ensures that the Jazz (and their arena) will be remain in the town where she grew up.

The Millers added to that label at the beginning of the year, transferring the ownership of the team into a trust, which will ensure that future profits are reinvested into the team and making it harder to move the Jazz out of the market. The renovations are a part of a future pattern, the organization believes, which will see increased investment into amenities, player salaries and other areas. The Millers themselves will not directly profit off of the Jazz, aside from tax benefits.

“We knew that we would need to ensure the arena would continually need to exceed expectations and serve the purpose of enriching our community,” Miller said. “For 25 years, we’ve worked tirelessly to live up to those expectations.”

That sense of communal ownership — that the Jazz belong to a place and not a family — did carry through to the arena workers, Blanck said. Hiring people from dozens of companies all over the state, it helped to feel that they all had something in common.

“Every project has its own little culture, and this one definitely had that sense of community,” he said. “From the guys sweeping the floors, to people running the elevators to electricians — everybody had a sense of we’re here to do something that’s bigger than a building.”

‘A brand-new arena’

How do the fans feel about it?

During Utah’s second preseason game against Maccabi Haifa, Ryan Shepard and Wes Warr were among those enjoying beers during the third quarter at one of the standing tables near the new atrium. They preferred having food on a table rather than trying to balance it on their laps.

But besides mere social convenience, both said the look of Vivint was one of the most stunning changes. It was hard to believe that they were entering the same arena where they’ve watched Jazz games for years.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Warr said. “Right from the entrance to the seats, it’s like a brand-new arena.”

Jim Faulkner and Mallory Bateman made a last-minute decision to go to the exhibition as well, mainly to see the renovations. They “made a beeline” for El Chubasco, the Park City staple serving Mexican food, and settled at another standing table afterward, watching the game on the overhead video screen while picking at nachos. They liked the local restaurants represented in the arena, calling it “an upgrade.”

This much is also true: Prices have gone up. Tickets are more expensive, and so is the food, several fans noted. But the reinvestment into the arena is worth it, fans told The Salt Lake Tribune, using words like “polished” and “friendly.”

“It feels more like a welcoming place, which I don’t know if you’d typically have that in a sporting venue,” Bateman said. “It feels a little more grown-up, like we have a real big city arena.”

Larry ‘would be very happy’

Is there a favorite feature of the arena for Greg Miller? It’s not so straightforward.

He loves the changes — the more comfy seats, the high-tech displays, the open areas — that make it feel new and cutting-edge. And he says he has gotten nothing but positive feedback.

Still, he likes that he can walk the halls of the arena and remember the building that his father poured himself into, the one that he worried if people would like.

“It’s great to look around and see the geometry of the building that I’ve almost grown up in for the last 26 years,” he said. “When I’m in this building, I can feel the blood, sweat and tears my dad put into it. To know that all of that effort is still adding value to the Jazz nation and to our community is really neat for me.”

With the updates, the organization hopes that the arena won’t need more large-scale renovations for at least another generation. With open-air spaces in the arena, a plaza that is more inviting and room to grow into new technology, this one is built for the long haul.

Gail Miller is among those who wonder how Larry would’ve judged the renovations, many of which he could never have imagined in his lifetime. Would he like the new arena?

“It’s a question I ask a lot,” she said. “Maybe he’d do a few things a little differently, but I think he took very seriously our responsibility to the community, and I think he’d be very happy.”