BILLINGS — When it opened 35 years ago, Metra was fit for a king.
Elvis Presley was on the list of superstar acts that exultant county officials boasted would be drawn to Billings by the new arena.
Metra — Montana’s Entertainment Trade and Recreation Arena — opened in December 1975 after years of controversy, including a lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
The 12,000-seat arena was built on the county fairgrounds at a cost of $7.2 million, or about $28.4 million in today’s dollars.
Boosters touted it as a performance and recreation complex that would change entertainment in Montana.
“Hold onto your hats and get ready for an onslaught of headliners — big name stars and talents who have never set foot in Montana before,” The Billings Gazette gushed in a special section devoted to the arena.
Plenty of big acts did come, although Elvis was not among them, and Metra soon became home to a range of events so diverse it was almost unbelievable.
Rodeo, the circus, basketball, ice hockey, demolition derby, bowling, wrestling, football, monster trucks, trade shows, dinosaurs, motorcycles, graduations, President Bush, President Reagan, Sesame Street, Garth Brooks, the Eagles, Cher, Metallica, Kenny Rogers, Fleetwood Mac.
“You don’t really realize how much it’s used and how much it does for the community until it’s put on the sidelines for 12 to 18 months,” said Tim Goodrich, organizer of the annual Magic City Blues Fest. “Everyone goes, ‘Wow. Maybe Metra’s not so bad after all.’ ”
Metra had detractors from the start — its first critics called it a white elephant — and even people who paid again and again to see shows there complained about it.
So as the shock wore off after last weekend’s tornado, many began to wonder: Could this be a new beginning?
“This may have been a blessing in disguise,” a woman wrote on a Facebook page devoted to the arena. “Maybe we will get a new arena with some good sound acoustics.”
“It’s sad,” another wrote, “but apparently God was looking down at Metra and decided that, as we all agree, it needed to be remodeled. Can’t wait to see the new one!”
County officials haven’t decided whether to repair what’s left of the storm-battered arena or to raze it and start fresh.
But that hasn’t stopped fans and foes from speculating — and dreaming.
“They should rebuild it,” said Sean Lynch, a Billings music promoter with 1111 Presents. “They have the opportunity to do it so it won’t impact Yellowstone County taxpayers if insurance is going to pay for it.”
It is possible to design a multipurpose arena that works as well for rodeo and football as it does for concerts and inspirational speakers, said James Poulson, design director for Ellerbe Beckett, a Kansas City architectural firm that specializes in arenas.
Poulson’s firm designed the Rose Garden arena in Portland, Ore., which is home to the NBA’s Trail Blazers, as well as several smaller arenas across the country.
The Rose Garden is a category above Metra in size — it can seat 20,000 for NBA games — but it hosts the same variety of events, many of which draw far smaller crowds.
Retractable seating, strategically placed curtains and adjustable 2-ton acoustic ceiling tiles allow the arena to be shaped into a number of different configurations.
“You can size the house for a small event so it feels intimate and it feels like a sellout,” Poulson said.
With 12,000 seats at full capacity, the Spokane Arena is on par with Metra, and it is so successful that it makes a profit, general manager Kevin Twohig said.
Built in 1995 for $60 million, including the cost of land, the Spokane Arena hosts 150 events a year including hockey, football, graduations and concerts.
The arena had its acoustics tuned and spent $700,000 on a new sound system last year.
“Frankly, having the roof off the building is an excellent opportunity to tune the acoustics in the building,” Twohig said of the arena.
Whether the arena is repaired or rebuilt, it needs a different look, said David Petersen, an architect at JGA in Billings.
“It could be a lot more energy efficient,” he said.
It also needs better ground-level access for livestock, monster trucks and other big items used in shows, said Justin Mills, general manager of the Northern International Livestock Exhibition.
Better sound, new lights, more flexibility in seating arrangements, easier access, less environmental impact — there’s no shortage of ideas to improve the arena.
How many of them are implemented will depend on time and money, said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy.
Eighty percent of Metra’s $5.5 million annual budget is generated through events, and event-goers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at local businesses, Kennedy said.
“You want to get this up and going as quickly as possible to keep the revenue,” he said.
Kennedy hopes Metra can be repaired within a few months. Designing and building an all-new facility could take three years or more.
“People call and say maybe you should do this and maybe you should do that,” he said. “When you get down to counting dollars, people will get behind this.”
But some, including music promoter Lynch, say they would rather wait.
“We have a tendency to try to Band-Aid things for 80 to 90 percent of the cost it would take to build something new,” Lynch said. “If the facility is built right, there will be more entertainment and people coming to town.”
Reporter Donna Healy contributed to this story.