County Board washes hands of ownership risk, blame

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027434429071.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Chicago Blackhawks VP Bob Pulford (left) and General Manager Dale Tallon (right).‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027568419947.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Dr. Kris Tumilowicz will stay involved as chairman of a hockey advisory board. ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027573725968.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘UHL President and CEO Richard Brosal listens closely as Dr. T announces plans to sell the IceHogs. ‘);

During the Jan. 25 Winnebago County Board meeting, the much-debated IceHogs/MetroCentre issue came to a head when the board essentially reversed its Dec. 28 decision to forbid city ownership of a sports franchise.

At the Dec. 28 meeting, the board voted 14-11 in favor of the amendment, which put this condition on the county’s $9 million toward the project.

Jan. 11, IceHogs majority-owner Dr. Kris Tumilowicz stood before the board, asking members to rescind that decision, to allow for a public-private partnership.

During public participation Jan. 25, however, MetroCentre Chairman Gary Marzorati announced, “This afternoon, we signed a letter of intent, on principle, that we would be purchasing the team.”

The IceHogs will now be the property of the MetroCentre, paving the way to seal a 10-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks to bring their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate to the Forest City.

After the board’s Jan. 25 19-7 vote to lift the ownership ban, the only condition now on the county’s $9 million is that it may only be used toward architectural design and construction.

Bob Kinnison (R-10) put the amendment on the floor, and battle ensued.

Rick Pollack (R-13), whose amendment banning government ownership of a team passed just weeks before, expressed concern the matter was being revisited.

“What’s to say two weeks from now, we don’t do that again and overturn what we just did tonight?” Pollack asked his fellow board members. “I just find this dangerous precedence to be amending something that we already sent to the Rockford City Council.”

Pollack added, “I’ll just be very disappointed for those of you that did change your vote.”

Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) was quick to point out, “We sent that to the City Council, with our amendment on it, and they voted that down and said they will not separate the renovations from the purchase of a team, and combined it all together.”

During a Dec. 26 Rockford City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) stated, “The funds in the $20 million could be used either for building construction or team acquisition.”

Aiello said the board earns credibility by watching out for taxpayers and urged her colleagues not to rush the process.

Only Paul Gorski (D-5), Dave Krienke (R-3) and Pete MacKay (R-5) supported Aiello’s motion to lay the matter over. Aiello said she’d received new information from MetroCentre General Manager Corey Pearson the night before, leaving inadequate time to check the facts she’d been presented with.

Gorski said the MetroCentre never came together with a coordinated package to present to the board.

“In not doing so,” Gorski argued, “it leads me to believe that it’s not a very well-thought-out plan.”

“I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” Gorski added, “to think that any monies that we contribute to this project aren’t in some way helping to own or operate a franchise.”

“The MetroCentre isn’t just a venue for hockey,” Pearl Hawks (D-6) reminded the board as she spoke in favor of the Kinnison amendment. “There’s other entertainment that will be, hopefully, coming to the MetroCentre.”

“I don’t know what causes us not to have minority entertainment, but we don’t get it,” added District 12 Democrat George Anne Duckett. “I expect more from a public facility that’s supposed to serve the public.”

Duckett, however, said she would support the Kinnison amendment in good faith and hopes the MetroCentre will see more entertainment and job opportunities for minorities.

District 3 Democrat Doug Aurand also backed Kinnison’s amendment and targeted board members critical of the project.

“At some point in time, we’ve gotta change the attitude,” Aurand said. “We’ve gotta become proactive. We have to become positive.” Aurand also cited lost Rockford opportunities as the Chrysler Plant in Belvidere, the CherryVale Mall in Cherry Valley and the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

Aiello offered up an amendment of her own: “That the City of Rockford guarantees to cover all operating losses and maintains operations of the building for the entire 20 years of this intergovernmental agreement.”

Aiello wanted a guarantee the MetroCentre’s doors would still be open in 20 years, whether the city’s proposed AHL venture with the Blackhawks is a huge success or a dismal failure.

“Our money is public money, and we can’t turn around and tell people that all we did was worry about the renovations, and if the place goes down the drain in five years, that our money stops, because our money doesn’t stop,” Aiello argued. “For 20 years, we’re gonna be paying for that place over there if it doesn’t work out.”

Using the Rockford Lightning on as an example, Jim Webster (R-2) responded that keeping the MetroCentre open is not dependent on the success or failure of a sports team. Webster urged the board to get the renovations moving.

Gorski responded to Webster, pointing out the MetroCentre’s position that ability to pay back renovation cost is contingent on owning a sports franchise.

“Controlling our tenant is a big part of this pro forma,” Pearson said earlier in the evening. “It’s something that we have to have. We need to keep that as part of it to move this thing along.”

“We’ve said from the beginning that we want to see a plan put together that would get the MetroCentre renovations completed in a financially responsible manner,” City Administrator Jim Ryan added in defense of the team-ownership model.

Pearson assured the board, “If something like this wasn’t gonna work, we wouldn’t go after it.” Pearson then reminded board members the Blackhawks don’t have time to wait.

Backing Aiello’s amendment, Gorski said, “I like the idea that if we’re gonna commit to 20 years, then I want to make sure the city’s gonna commit to 20 years also.”

“Let’s make sure that, for our $9 million, that the building’s gonna be kept open for the 20 years,” Krienke pressed, referencing recent warnings of shut-downs. “I think it’s very reasonable.”

“It just seems perfectly reasonable to say,” John Harmon (R-4) agreed, “‘OK, we’ll do that, but then you do your part for the entire 20 years.’”

Also questioning the city and Authority’s ability to operate the MetroCentre if the AHL venture fails, MacKay spoke in favor of the Aiello amendment.

“We’re being asked to guarantee bond payments for 20 years, and the city can fold the MetroCentre up, or the Metro Authority can fold it up, anytime they want,” MacKay noted. “If the city is not agreeable to paying the bills, we are screwed for the whole thing, and we get nothing, and the public gets nothing.”

“We have bombed the building before we have ever started,” Angie Goral (D-7) exclaimed in frustration about renovations being held up. “People can’t make up their minds what they wanna do. This is ridiculous!”

Frank Gambino (R-14) argued the importance of the renovation, noting the new and improved MetroCentre will be a status symbol for downtown Rockford.

“It’s imperative that we, as a community, start realizing that we have to re-invest in our infrastructure,” Gambino said, backing Kinnison’s amendment. “We need not only protect our constituents financially, but we also need to look forward and provide our constituents with economic growth.”

In a 10-16 vote, Aiello’s amendment was defeated.

Gorski, Harmon, Krienke, MacKay, Pollack, Dorothy Redd (D-6), John Sweeney (R-14), L.C. Wilson (D-12) and Dave Yeske (R-2) voted in support of Aiello.

With many board members tired of the fight and pressured by looming deadlines for Blackhawk executives and a bond sale, Kinnison’s amendment skated through by a margin of 19-7.

Only Aiello, Gorski, Krienke, MacKay, Pollack, Sweeney and Wilson held their ground against government being involved in team ownership.

Essentially reversing their Dec. 28 votes to bar such ownership were Goral, Ray Graceffa (R-7), Harmon, Phil Johnson (D-8), Redd and Yeske.

“They [MetroCentre] haven’t paid the ice off,” Krienke noted after the meeting

. “When you owe AMCORE Bank one-point-some-million, you’re only paying the interest, I guess you can show a little profit when you don’t pay your bills.”

Pearson has touted MetroCentre profits in the last two years, and said the MetroCentre parking deck at State and Main streets will be sold to settle the debt on the ice.

Asked if the IceHogs matter had been discussed at the previous week’s United Hockey League (UHL) Board of Governors meeting, UHL Commissioner Richard Brosal reported: “Kris Tumilowicz said what he had to in front of his partners and clearly waffled again and flipped on ’em. So he was told at that point if in fact he changed and did not honor his obligations with the United Hockey League, that we would take legal action.”

Brosal promised a tortious interference and slander lawsuit by the UHL against the MetroCentre Authority, the City of Rockford, the Chicago Blackhawks and the AHL.

Tumilowicz and City Administrator Jim Ryan said they had not yet been made aware of any such lawsuit.

“The county’s been very clear that they wanted their dollars to go to the renovations and not to operations,” Ryan told reporters. “We understand that and I think tonight’s amendment was just further clarification of that.”

Ryan doesn’t anticipate the amendment will create a problem for the city’s planned bond sale Feb. 12, which will kick off the project to give the 21-year-old arena a facelift.

Marzorati announced Tumilowicz would be staying on with the team as chairman of a hockey advisory board.

“We have not been willing to go forward without him,” Marzorati told the board before the vote.

“I feel that we have something that everybody likes,” Pearson said. “Dr. T [Tumilowicz] is part of the team.”

“All of our know-how is going to now jump up to the next level and bring a better type of hockey for Rockford and the Rockford IceHogs,” Dr. T promised.

Marzorati estimated about five members will be on the board, two of which he’ll appoint himself.

“This team is too important to me to just walk away without something in place to assure that the spirit, energy and high-quality management of the Rockford IceHogs is never taken away from our fans,” Tumilowicz said.

Brosal blasted those whose votes had flipped since Dec. 28, saying, “I don’t know how any county board member in there who voted ‘yes’ can ever think that their vote means anything in the future.”

“They are forgetting about the taxpayers, who they represent,” Aiello said of the board’s decision. “The problem is, two or three years down the line, they’re gonna see the ramifications of what they voted on tonight.”

“Once the renovations happen and things start falling apart,” Aiello warned, “the taxpayers are gonna have to pick up all the losses.”

“If I’m a taxpayer, I don’t know if I’m real happy with that,” said Norfolk Admirals Vice President Mark Bernard, noting that most sports teams lose money, even in the National Hockey League.

Bernard, who coached the IceHogs in 2003 and 2004, said the Admirals would still like to work out a deal to extend their seven-year AHL affiliation with the Blackhawks in Norfolk, Va.

“We deal, obviously, a lot with Bob Pulford and Dale Tallon [Blackhawks senior vice president and general manager, respectively],” Bernard explained. “They’re all first-class people, and they’ve treated our organization the same way.”

Pulford and Tallon were in attendance at the Jan. 25 County Board meeting.

Bernard said the Admirals have been aware of the Blackhawks’ talks with Rockford for about a year.

“We totally understand why they’re looking at the Rockford scenario for proximity, but we would be thrilled to be able to continue with them,” Bernard said.

Just in case, Bernard said the Admirals have already been looking into three other AHL affiliations for next season.

Norfolk has a population of 241,000 and is home to the world’s largest naval base.

Bernard reports the AHL Admirals’ average Wednesday night attendance is 3,360, with 4,700 and 4,200 on Fridays and Saturdays, respectively. Norfolk averages 4,299 overall.

The IceHogs average 3,777 in attendance this season.

The AHL’s Chicago Wolves, who play in Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, average 6,902 fans per game–about half of the Blackhawks’ average draw of 12,905 for home games.

Bernard recalled when Norfolk made the step from AA to AAA hockey, as Rockford is about to do.

“When they went to the American Hockey League, it was the same thing; it was a city-generated switch. The city wanted to move to the American Hockey League,” Bernard said. “And a lot of the fans left. They didn’t wanna be a part of it.” He said he was just recently recovering some of those fans.

Bernard anticipates the new AHL IceHogs may be spending a lot of time trying to win back loyal fans from the team’s first eight seasons in the UHL.

“I know they have a lot of interaction with the players at that level,” Bernard said from experience, but warned of differences in the AHL. “They won’t have that same interaction. The players don’t have the time and/or the need. When you’re playing in the United Hockey League, and you’re making $400 to $600 a week, you love it when a fan asks you over to their house for dinner.”

“One fan refused to shake my hand at an IceHogs game, and a few scattered boos when I tried to sing the anthem,” Tumilowicz noted. “And of all the negativity, that hurts the most.”

Despite already feeling the effects of some soured Hogs’ fans, Dr. T said he’s also received many words of encouragement and support.

“You are not losing a team,” Tallon told IceHogs fans. “You’re just changing leagues.”

“We’ll do everything in our power to make this succeed,” Tallon added, assuring a commitment to the Rockford community.

Citing 20,000 members in the Illinois Hockey Association between Rockford and Chicago, Tallon thinks the partnership will be mutually beneficial to Blackhawks and IceHogs attendance.

“Cross-market—[we] have our fans come to the games here to see the young players and how they’re developing,” Tallon suggested. ”Likewise, when they’re called up to play with the big club, we’ll have fans there from Rockford.”

Tallon said some of the best prospects in the world will be in Rockford, including players from Russia, Finland and Sweden.

“I hope our fans are relieved,” an exhausted-looking Tumilowicz said to a clump of press microphones. “I hope that all of that uncertainty is gonna disappear, and we can continue winning in this season, get that Colonial Cup, and then next year we can set our sights on the Calder Cup.”

Tumilowicz said it was too early to reveal a sale price for the IceHogs.

Meanwhile, County Board members can rest assured their $9 million will only be used for design and construction. That is, if the Rockford City Council finally agrees to separate renovation funds from those to be used for the $3 million purchase of the AHL franchise.

“I think the language does say that our monies will not be commingled with theirs to purchase the team,” Pollack assured. “The city has to own up to what they’re doing.”

No timeline has been put on the Blackhawks deal becoming official, or the public knowing the details.

From the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!