Stadium Series shows big-event potential of Meadowlands — and its big missing piece

Convention center would bring more events to complex, along with billions in additional economic activity

The NHL’s Stadium Series — outdoor games played last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon before sold-out crowds — was just the latest example of how MetLife Stadium is capable of hosting huge events, ones that come with huge economic benefits.

Saturday’s night game between the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers showed New Jersey is more than capable of handling big-event crowds (which it has proven for years). It also showed that the state is capable of taking top billing.

From the Devils players showing up in “Sopranos”-based outfits to performances from Jersey-based artists the Jonas Brothers, the Gaslight Anthem and Max Weinberg to the (stunning, but welcome) fact that the ABC telecast repeatedly said the game was in New Jersey — not the New York City area.

The event, which ended with a Sunday afternoon game between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, clearly was a success — but it comes with one big question: Why isn’t the state doing more to unlock the full economic potential of the Meadowlands?

Jim Kirkos, the longtime CEO of the Meadowlands Chamber, is as happy as anyone when big events come to the area — but he is sad when he thinks of how much money the state is leaving on the table by not having a convention center at the complex that could bring in even more.

The convention center not only would draw conventions (obviously), but also youth sports tournaments that now head to places such as Orlando, Florida (think basketball and volleyball).

And, as was the case this weekend, it also could serve as a host for various FanFest activities during the biggest of events.

Kirkos said not having a convention center in time for the World Cup will impact the state’s ability to capitalize on it.

“It’s another missed opportunity for even more economic impact for New Jersey in the Meadowlands by not having that facility there,” Kirkos said. “And it’s an even more compelling reason to say, ‘If we want to continue to do big events, and we want to continue to get the economic impact from big events, then what are we waiting for?’”

Kirkos and his group have a path forward.

A year ago, the Meadowlands 2040 Foundation — an arm of the chamber — released a feasibility study on the benefits of building a 460,000-square-foot multipurpose convention center, one that could possibly bring an extra $1 billion in economic benefits.

And, while the convention center cannot be completed in time for the 2026 World Cup, Kirkos said his group is eager for the state to take the next steps toward building it — putting New Jersey in a better position to not only get future events (including a second Super Bowl) but to better monetize them.

“I’m hoping to use the momentum of the World Cup final to continue to garner the attention of public officials to advance this concept to a better place,” he said.

The outline for a proposed 460,000-square-foot facility spells out the possibilities, including:

  • 300,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space, which could be used for a large convention/exhibition or a sporting event;
  • 100,000 square feet of meeting space, which includes room for smaller breakout and meeting rooms;
  • 60,000 square feet of banquet space, which could host events of up to 2,500 people.

Such a state-of-the-art facility, one that would compete with the nearly 40-year-old Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, is a no-brainer, said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville). The Republican deputy leader is calling for the Legislature to advance his bill that would direct the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to conduct a feasibility study of the Meadowlands convention center project.

Pennacchio’s legislation, S375 — which was first introduced in 2008 and reintroduced in January — directs the NJSEA to look at the area where the arena formerly known as the Izod Center sits. (An arena that has essentially been vacant for nearly a decade.)

Pennachio pointed to the Meadowlands Chamber study as a worthy jumping-off point, loving the idea that it shows a convention center could create 6,000 new jobs and produce $3.5 billion in new tax revenue.

“The Meadowlands redevelopment — with a convention center attracting thousands of people paying millions of dollars — is certainly something that should be looked at, and the time to do it is now,” he said.

To be fair, finding the money to build a convention center is a concern, as it always is.

But finances have not necessarily scared Gov. Phil Murphy away. He has spoken favorably about a potential convention center in the past.

Last fall, after seeing the feasibility study by the Meadowlands Chamber, he called a convention center something that “conceptually is very attractive.” Murphy also noted that the numbers show the region is under capacity for convention space.

Days after it was announced that the state would get the 2026 World Cup final, Murphy spoke of the potential to create a more all-encompassing area in the Meadowlands to attract more big events.

“I would think (getting the final) impacts the further development, regardless of how that looks,” he said.

The area around MetLife Stadium does look better now — especially when compared with when it hosted the Super Bowl in 2014.

The biggest reason: American Dream is now open.

The retail and entertainment megamall has proven it can help draw thousands to the area while helping it become a must-see destination. It is expected to have numerous activations around the World Cup in the lead-up to the event.

“We are incredibly excited that the World Cup final and preliminary soccer matches will take place right next door at MetLife Stadium,” an American Dream spokesperson said. “As the premier destination in the area for entertainment and retail, we look forward to welcoming visitors from around the world and showcasing the very best in shopping, dining and experiences.

“We eagerly anticipate hosting a wide array of events and activations throughout the tournament that will unite the local and global community, as well as ensure that the excitement extends beyond the stadium.”

Kirkos said American Dream not only has helped make the Meadowlands more attractive, but it also serves as proof of concept for making the complex a global destination.

“How could you come to a huge event at MetLife Stadium or the convention center and not spend a day or two at American Dream?” he said. “We understand, people who are coming here are going to spend time in New York City. That makes sense.

“But, if we’re talking about keeping more of the revenue from big events in the state, we need to have more reasons for people to stay in the state.”

Kirkos points to the potential dollar signs.

“FIFA has said the World Cup will be worth an estimated $2 billion in economic impact in the United States across 10 venues,” he said. “Our economic report shows the convention center will be worth a billion a year.

“Why wouldn’t we want to generate a billion dollars a year — or $30 billion over 30 years?”