City council cautiously agrees to MetroCentre upgrade

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116421803429093.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘After demands by audience members, IceHogs coach Steve Martinson was finally allowed to address the City Council.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116421767119943.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘The Rockford City Council Planning and Development Committee reluctantly voted to put MetroCentre renovations before the full council.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116421772725842.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘United Hockey League Commissioner Richard Brosal said the IceHogs deserve to continue playing UHL hockey in a renovated MetroCentre.’);

During the Nov. 20 meeting, the Rockford City Council took the first step toward a city-county agreement, along with the MetroCentre Authority, to fund improvements to the 25-year-old arena. The memorandum, however, contains no language regarding the Chicago Blackhawks, Rockford IceHogs, American Hockey League (AHL) or United Hockey League (UHL) organizations.

The council unanimously agreed to move ahead, essentially sending a letter of intent to the Winnebago County Board, letting them know the city is onboard for the $20 million MetroCentre renovation. Although Rockford aldermen voted 13-0 in favor, the issue was nearly tabled in committee.

Before the meeting, the city’s Planning and Development Committee debated the matter for 90 minutes, causing the city council to convene more than half an hour late. Approximately 50 people, many donning IceHog jerseys, packed the committee room to see whether the agreement would go to a vote before the full council that night.

Everyone seemed to agree renovations are necessary, but many had reservations about moving forward so quickly. Centre Events General Manager Corey Pearson, however, stressed that if the patron level of the arena is to be completed in time for the 2007-2008 hockey season, the time for action is now.

Expected renovations are to include an extension of the rink’s length, a VIP area, club seats, luxury suites and a video board, along with improved concessions and restrooms. Pearson said the added amenities should draw an additional $1.2-$1.3 million in revenue.

Gary Marzorati, chairman of the Centre Events board, argued the importance of sending a message the city is serious about the possibility of hosting the Blackhawks’ farm team for the next 10 years.

“We are serious, but I think there are also some serious questions here,” said a leery Ald. Frank Beach (R-10). “We’re trying to figure out,” Beach added, “just how to do this and be prudent and responsible to the taxpayers and to ourselves.”

Centre Events has been in negotiations with the ’Hawks for about a year, but Pearson said there are contingencies before a deal can be finalized. According to Centre Events leaders, approving the MetroCentre facelift is a huge step toward that end. The MetroCentre Authority would also be required to purchase an AHL franchise, estimated at $3 million, before the ’Hawks would give the nod to bring their minor league team to Rockford from Norfolk, Va. Critics say since the price Rockford is willing to pay has been announced, the price could actually go as high as $9 million.

MetroCentre officials want to purchase all rights to the Rockford Icehogs and replace them with an AHL franchise. Current players and coaching staff would be eliminated. Only front-office staff would keep their jobs.

“Under the scenario that we’re operating with, we’re looking at bringing it in-house and operating it. That’s a proven model,” Pearson explained. “That’s our best option to succeed and to make this thing work.”

Not everyone agrees this would be a winning venture.

IceHogs coach Steve Martinson told The Rock River Times a market of this size simply can’t support an AHL franchise, adding only five of 23 AHL teams are profitable. Martinson cited the Peoria Rivermen have actually dropped in attendance since making the move into the AHL.

“If they’re making a half a million off of us, why are they taking up an endeavor that no other pro team will do?” Martinson asked rhetorically. “Because it’s not their money.”

No deal has been reached to purchase the Icehogs, but Centre Events plans to move ahead, with or without the team’s name. Based on the recent sale price of UHL rivals, the Quad City Mallards, Icehogs owners Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah are asking $1.5 million. The owners have reportedly only been offered $540,000 for the buy-out.

UHL Commissioner, President and CEO Richard Brosal flew in from Missouri to speak his mind at the Rockford City Council and Winnebago County Board meetings. Brosal doesn’t believe the Icehogs or UHL are being treated fairly after nearly eight seasons of building a successful following in Rockford.

“We’ve done all the hard lifting here,” Brosal said after the council meeting, “and now they’re coming in and trying to reap the benefits.” Brosal argued the ’Hogs deserve to play in a renovated MetroCentre and that an AHL venture is too risky.

Marzorati said negotiations with IceHogs owners have come to a halt for the next couple weeks, and that the focus of Centre Events is now on getting the city and county behind the renovation project.

According to the intergovernmental agreement, the city would issue approximately $20 million in bonds for a 20-year term. The $912,000 annual subsidy for MetroCentre’s operations would be directed toward repayment of the bonds. The city would also seek an extension of the Metro Tax in the Illinois General Assembly.

Winnebago County would contribute $250,000 the first year, and $460,000 annually for the 19 subsequent years of the commitment. These moneys would come from landfill tipping fees and would also go toward bond repayment.

The MetroCentre Authority would pledge to seek grants from the state and other outside sources.

After much discussion during the Planning and Development Committee meeting, Ald. Dan Conness (D-14) made a motion to send an amended agreement before the full council. A few minutes later, Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) cautiously seconded the motion after receiving assurances the council would still have opportunity to back out.

The amendment reads, “All such agreements shall be subject to review by their parties’ respective counsel.”

The County’s Economic Development Committee voted Nov. 15 to put the renovation plans before the full board.

Although the renovation project appears likely, IceHogs fans will have to continue waiting to see whether their team will be back for a ninth season.

To see how the Winnebago County Board voted Nov. 21, visit w for a web exclusive update.

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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