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The history of the Pan Am Center’s success

It has been nearly 50 years since New Mexico State University’s Pan American Center first opened its doors to the public. Since 1968, the multipurpose arena has not only hosted countless sporting events, commencement ceremonies and performances, but has also been a stop for some of the highest grossing concert tours in the country.

Former New Mexico State University special events director Barbara Hubbard poses next to a framed photograph of herself and Reba McEntire at the Pan American Center on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. The photograph hangs on the wall of a conference room which is named after the entertainment business icon. (Photo by Baylee Banks/Kokopelli)

From famous bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and The Eagles, to world-renowned solo artists including Jennifer Lopez, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston and Sting, the Pan American Center has seen no shortage of talent throughout its five-decade-long existence. According to former NMSU events director and current paragon of entertainment business success Barbara Hubbard, it would be easier to list the names of artists who haven’t performed at the Pan Am over those who have.

“We’ve done just about everybody,” Hubbard said, “Keith [Urban], we did him and I paid him $900. With Alabama it was the same thing. See, we caught them as they were going up. That’s one reason we got to build our reputation, and there was a sense of loyalty. They came back when they were at the top.”

Barbara Hubbard, informally known by students as “Mother Hubbard,” was the Pan American Center’s first events manager. The arena’s reputation of being one of the finest in the southwest was established thanks to the 91-year-old entertainment industry legend. Hubbard is known for booking performers like Keith Urban and Garth Brooks more than once because of close relationships that often go beyond just business.

“Really they have to trust you,” Hubbard said of the performers. “Their whole reputation relies on you producing a good show for their fans. Naturally, George Straight is the one who has been in the building the most and he’s the king of country.”

During her time at the Pan Am, Hubbard also formed a bond with The Eagles manager, Irving Azoff, whom she has been close friends with for 43 years. Reba McEntire, who is expected to return to the arena in the near future, helped to raise money for Hubbard’s student scholarship program and is another friend of Hubbard’s.

Although close bonds between event directors, performers and managers has undoubtedly allowed the Pan American Center to flourish as an entertainment venue, the arena’s convenient location has also played a role in attracting well-known artists.

Built just west of Interstate 25 and just east of Interstate 10, the special events center, which seats 13,140, was once the only performance arena located between Dallas and Phoenix, making it an all-important stop in the Southwest for big-name performers. Since then, the Don Haskins Center in El Paso and the Isleta Ampitheater in Albuquerque have become popular venues for concert tours as well.

“We’ve got a specific genre of music, which is country, and it’s kind of difficult to be breaking into the other ones, historically, because a lot of them go into the El Paso Coliseum or the Don Haskins Center at UTEP,” said current NMSU director of special events, Scott Breckner. “If you’re marketing and if you happen to be routing a major tour and you’re in Nashville or LA, if you look at the market place, you kind of look at El Paso and Las Cruces as one large market, so sometimes it gets down to what your venue is really available for.”

Despite the competition, the Pan American Center continues to attract legendary artists to the Mesilla Valley, and according to Mother Hubbard, a big reason why is because of the students who help run the show.

“We’ve built our reputation because I was keeping the staff of students in school by letting them have a good paycheck,” Hubbard said. “The students that had talent, whether they wanted to be a lighting or stage director, we gave them internships by letting them work all the shows.”

Student employees are able to gain experience within the entertainment industry through internships offered at the Pan American Center as well through the scholarship program established by Hubbard. The American Collegiate Talent Showcase scholarship fund works toward matching students up with internships and opportunities in order to allow college students interested in working in entertainment to gain the exposure and experience needed to excel, on stage and behind the scenes.

“To me that’s the paycheck,” says Hubbard, “to see those young people make it.”

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