PPL Center – Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Photos by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.71
PPL Center 701 Hamilton St Allentown, PA 18101
Year Opened: 2014
We’re Living Here in Allentown
It certainly was a long, strange trip for professional hockey to arrive in Allentown.
The Phantoms began play in 1996 as the top minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. The team played out of the Spectrum, just across the parking lot of the parent team. Seen as simply a way to occupy dates in the now-vacant arena, the Phantoms wildly exceeded expectations, both on the ice and at the gate. The team won two Calder Cups during their time in Philadelphia (1998 and 2005). In anticipation of the Spectrum’s demolition, the franchise was sold and moved to Glens Falls, New York, in what was originally to be a temporary move until a new arena was built in nearby Allentown. It was originally planned that the Phantoms would play in upstate New York for two seasons, but their stay extended to five seasons while the team awaited their new home.
Meanwhile, plans to build a new arena in downtown Allentown had been in the works since the 1990s. The eventual site of the PPL Center, part of a complete downtown revitalization project that included several structures over five acres, is located a few blocks from the site picked to house an arena for the United Hockey League’s Lehigh Valley Xtreme in 2000.
The first structure to be built at the new site, Corporate Plaza, collapsed into a sinkhole due to design flaws and had to be imploded in 1994. Meanwhile, the building of the PPL Center languished, with plans not finalized until 2009, funds not secured until 2010 and the purchase of all properties on the site not finalized until 2012. The PPL Center finally opened on September 10, 2014.
The final price tag for the PPL Center has sparked a great deal of controversy locally, as the final cost for the venue was $282 million. This makes the PPL Center the most expensive minor league facility ever built. Each seat at the PPL Center cost in excess of $21,000, more than double the next most expensive venue in the United States. For comparison, the Giant Center in Hershey was built for $65 million and the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes Barre was built for $44 million.
Food & Beverage 5
As is the case with many new facilities, concessions are at the forefront of the game day experience here at the PPL Center. The quality and selection of foods is most impressive for a venue of this size.
It’s possible to get something to eat before you even enter the arena proper at the PPL Center. Tim Horton’s Donuts, 99 Bottles and Chickie and Pete’s are all built into the arena, and fans can enter into the PPL Center directly through these establishments. Tim Horton’s, known throughout Canada for their coffee and donuts, is a popular pregame stop. 99 Bottles, features, you guessed it, 99 brands of beer and coal fired specialties. Chickie and Pete’s, known for their cheesesteaks, is a small slice of Philadelphia here in the suburbs. One of the more popular items here at the PPL Center is their crab fries, sold with a side of cheese sauce for seven dollars.
Concession stands located throughout the concourse offer a wide variety of food for hungry Phantom fans. Burger Prime (gourmet burgers), Chef Express (wraps and salads), Mozerella’s Pizzeria (pizza slices, meatball and chicken parm sandwiches), Grill Masters (chicken tenders and grilled chicken sandwiches) and Fresh Classics (hot dogs and nachos) are among the options. A wide variety of snacks and beverages are sold at all concession stands.
Portable carts offer even more variety still. Hot Dog Nation (gourmet hot dogs), Mom’s Macaroni (gourmet mac and cheese), The Q Barbeque (brisket and pulled pork sandwiches), Donny Brook’s Grill (cheesesteaks and sausages), Rita’s Water Ice (Italian ice) and A-maize-ing Nachos (nachos and tacos) all offer unique items not found at the main stands. In addition, beer, soda and Phantom Dogs are available at all portable carts.
Coca-Cola products are featured at the PPL Center. A wide variety of beer is available here, from national brands (Bud, Bud Light, Sam Adams, Corona, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Blue Moon and Guinness) to local favorites (Yuengling).
There is no denying that you are in Flyers country when you visit the PPL Center. The place is filled to the brim with the Flyers’ orange and gold, and you are just as likely to see the flying P logo as the Phantoms’ mask logo here in Allentown.
Aside from that, the game day presentation will feel very familiar to veteran minor league hockey fans. Play stoppages are filled with all kinds of noise, generally marketed to the many children in attendance. Phantoms goals are punctuated with a loud steam whistle. The team’s mascot, Melvin, is a creature oddly similar to the Philly Phanatic, who spends his nights roaming the rink interacting with fans. In addition, there is a Phan Crew, who coordinate giveaways and t-shirt tosses during play stoppages, but who add nothing to the overall atmosphere, as the fans here do not need encouragement to enjoy the game.
Downtown Allentown has never had a sparkling reputation, and the construction of the PPL Center was intended to spur development in the area. While Allentown is still not known as a destination location, new developments are popping up all around the PPL Center.
Fans looking for a place to eat before a game can check out Chickie’s and Pete’s or 99 Bottles, both of which are attached to the arena, or one of several other restaurants located within a short walk of the PPL Center. Fegley’s Allentown Brew Works is a popular spot for local hockey fans. Fans looking for more unique eats can check out Cuchifrito’s, known for their Latin American inspired dishes, or the Sugar Hill Jazz House, serving traditional American fare with a side of music.
An often heard criticism is that the downtown area is not safe. Despite the emergence of many new restaurants in the area, as well as much business growth, this myth persists. The truth is, the area around the PPL Center is safe, and fans can feel comfortable visiting establishments in the area before or after a Phantoms game. As is the case in most big cities, just use common sense and you’ll be fine.
There aren’t a whole lot of places to stay in the vicinity of the PPL Center, so most fans leave the area right after the game. If you are visiting the Allentown area for a game, there are many options for lodging and dining in the area around the airport, about a ten minute drive from the arena.
Lehigh Valley averages just under 8,000 fans per game, well within the top ten of the AHL in terms of attendance. Allentown’s location just 65 miles from the parent Flyers certainly helps these attendance figures.
The Flyers orange and black colors are prevalent throughout the PPL Center. The fans here know their hockey and love their Flyers.
The crowd here is typical of most minor league hockey cities, as Phantoms games are marketed to families. Kids are present in large numbers, and a great deal of the game day experience is targeted towards the younger demographics.
The PPL Center is located in downtown Allentown, several miles from the nearest highways, Interstate 78 and Route 22. One must navigate many city streets to arrive at the arena. Parking is plentiful in the lots and garages surrounding the facility. For more information, including directions to the arena and links to pay in advance for parking, check the PPL Center website. Fans taking public transportation should check the LANta website for a complete schedule of busses and shuttles serving the facility.
Overall, access is an area where the PPL Center falls short. In their attempt to create a miniature version of a big-league venue, the designers of the facility put in high-end amenities ahead of the typical fan. While that has become the norm at big-league venues, it is not a welcome site in a mid-sized venue.
There are numerous entrances into the PPL Center. All of the entryways empty into the main concourse, which completely circles the seating bowl, although it does not offer 360 degree views of the action (more on that later). While there is a main atrium that is designed to be the focal welcoming point to patrons, the fact that fans can enter the building via the parking garage or the several attached restaurants minimizes any wow factor this main entrance may have.
The seating bowl is made up of two seating levels. The lower level completely encircles the ice, while the upper level offers seats on one sideline and one end zone. The other sideline is completely made up of club seating and luxury boxes, which totally dominate the view from all points inside the arena. The seating sections below the club section are often half filled as fans choose to take in the action from the swankier club level. Fans not holding tickets to these sections are not allowed in the club section or attached seating sections, and must navigate a narrow hallway behind the club seats when walking the concourse.
Navigating the PPL Center can be a challenge. The arena, tucked into a tight downtown footprint, features a narrow concourse which becomes quite crowded during intermissions. Likewise, bathrooms at the PPL Center, while clean and new, are not plentiful enough to handle a typical Phantoms crowd. Long lines form during intermission. Concession lines, on the other hand, move quickly as the numerous points of sale are more than enough to handle even a hungry hockey crowd.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets for Phantoms games start at $11.50 for seats in the Blue Cross section and max out at $35.50 for lower level seats at center ice. The majority of seats at the PPL Center cost between $21.50 and $26.50, putting this venue right in line with the majority of arenas in the American Hockey League.
Parking in the many lots and garages around the PPL Center will cost an additional six dollars. While some of the premium food items here can be a bit pricey, overall concession prices are not outrageous for this level of hockey.
An extra point is awarded for the aesthetics and impressive visuals of the PPL Center. Despite its drawbacks in access, it’s a very visually pleasing arena.
An extra point is awarded for the connection with the parent Flyers. From the alliteration to the matching (though not identical) color scheme to the Phanatic-like mascot, Melvin, it’s easy to realize you are in Flyers country here in Allentown.
The PPL Center, while striving for major league feel and amenities, falls short on many basic fan comforts. While the food selection and amenities here are among the best in minor league hockey, the cramped seating area, concourses and rest rooms are major drawbacks. Old-school fans will have little use for all the bells and whistles here at the PPL Center, while fans looking to be entertained by more than just the action on the ice will rate the arena more favorably. Is the final result worth the cost? We’ll let you decide.
Follow Paul Baker’s stadium journeys on Twitter @PuckmanRI.