Update: Tornado Demolishes Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings, Mont.

24 Jun

A tornado ripped the roof off of Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings, Mt.

The tornado that tore through Billings, Mont., on Father’s Day (June 20) destroyed Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, but no lives were lost. The arena had been host to 4,500 fans of the Billings Outlaws of the Indoor Football League just the night before, but was empty at the time of the tornado, said Sandra Hawke, venue marketing director.

She got the call about the 4:30 p.m. touchdown while preparing for a Father’s Day barbecue at her home 10 miles away. “We get the long views in Montana; we could watch it,” she said. On Monday, Bill Dutcher, manager, was meeting with insurance representatives and the National Guard and Billings police were controlling traffic and access.

Immediate concerns besides rebuilding included future bookings at the 35-year-old, $10 million, 10,800-seat arena. The repairs will be in the hundreds of millions, she said.

Hawke said on-sales included Brad Paisley, set for Sept. 26, and Carrie Underwood, Dec. 10, both of which will be refunded. Celtic Woman, set for Aug. 22, will most likely reschedule for up to three shows at the 1,400-seat Alberta Bair Theatre in town, Hawke said.

Concerts set for Rimrock Arena during the annual MontanaFair Aug. 13-21 will be moved to the outdoor grandstand, Hawke continued. Bookings include Jason Aldean, the Scorpions and Hinder and Finger Eleven.

The most immediate problem is Outlaws playoff games, which were to start June 27 at the arena. They will most likely have three playoff games and a championship remaining in the post season. The plan is to go forward with the games at their Sports Complex practice field. With risers, they can probably increase capacity to 1,500, well short of the projected attendance. The decision was made that it was most important to have home court advantage on an appropriate field, Hawke said.

Bookings also include the Antiques Road Show this Saturday, June 26, which Hawke said will still be held at the 77,400-square-foot Expo Center which was damaged in the tornado when debris broke through the roof. It is being repaired and the 28,800 square foot Montana Pavilion is being prepared for the preparation area where antiquers bring their valuables prior to being filmed on the show. Hawke said she pursued that booking for eight and a half years before they determined after a site visit last year that MetraPark could house the show. She intends to be there with her art nouveau antique vase from the 1890’s in hand. Space will be supplemented with tents, she added.

The AKC-sanctioned dog show June 22-24 is going on as planned in the Montana Pavilion, she said. “They’re as happy as clams.” Hawke has been calling them over for the press conference updates on the tornado damage and they have testified to the adequate accommodations and gained unexpected publicity for the event.

Cleanup efforts removing debris, including the six-inch roofing nails that were flattening tires on a lot of media vehicles that crossed into off-limits areas of the fairgrounds, were well underway Monday, Hawke said. The dog show crowd was already moving in with their motor homes Monday.

Several fortunate things happened in this midst of the devastation, she said. For one, the grounds were empty except for the maintenance man assigned to that day. Second, the power was already off to accommodate a lighting upgrade, so fire and electrocution were not a factor.

The roof was totally blown off Rimrock  Auto Arena and the water poured in, saturating everything. Hawke said eye witnesses said the tornado seemed to “park itself on top of the arena for 15 minutes. It was stripped down to block and steel.”

The management team was on site for three hours after the storm hit, Hawke said. Starplex Crowd Management, the security firm, secured the grounds and structure, with help from the National Guard.

Rimrock Arena was quite solid structurally and Hawke was guessing they would not rebuild from the ground up, but the damage was extensive. “We are fully insured,” she said, though there are always things lost that are not covered. The astroturf belonged to the Outlaws and that was ruined and the Billings Gazette had brought in lighting and equipment that was destroyed. “Personal things are all lost,” she said.

Hawke also noted the arena was highly functional for its age, with wide concourses, soft seats and good storage. “It works well; it’s just old,” she said. “We managed to hang Metallica, even with their load.”

The rebuild will bring some changes, including improved ADA compliance.

She emphasized that the fair will go on as planned, Aug. 13-21, with some adjustments to event sites. “I may change the theme to ‘raise the roof,’” she quipped. — Linda Deckard

Interviewed for this story: Sandra Hawke, (406) 256-2402


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