County joins city in MetroCentre renovation agreement

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116422386714175.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘MetroCentre leaders, including Corey Pearson (center), await the Winnebago County Board's decision on the proposed renovation agreement.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116422388714175.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘IceHogs fans show their support for the local hockey team and its owners at the Nov. 21 Winnebago County Board meeting.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11642239061811.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Richard Brosal’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11642239231811.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Steve Martinson’);

MetroCentre, IceHogs to resume talks of selling team

The Winnebago County Board joined the City of Rockford Nov. 21 in an intergovernmental agreement to give the MetroCentre some much-needed improvements. The City Council approved its version the night before. Both the city and county were unanimous in their votes.

By approving its end of the deal, the county pledged $250,000 for the first year and $460,000 for each of the following 19 years. The county funds come from landfill host fees and will be applied to repayment of approximately $20 million in bonds that will be issued by the City of Rockford for the renovation project.

The 25-year-old arena’s facelift is to include a new glass atrium facade, a VIP area, luxury suites, club seats and a video scoreboard. The MetroCentre Authority also plans to improve restroom and concessions facilities.

Centre Events leaders would also like to extend the length of the ice rink to accommodate American Hockey League (AHL) play. Local leaders estimate the price tag for an AHL franchise to be in the neighborhood of $3 million, but critics say, in reality, that figure is bound to turn out much higher.

United Hockey League (UHL) commissioner Richard Brosal and IceHogs coach Steve Martinson addressed the board during the Nov. 21 meeting. Brosal and Martinson reiterated their impassioned speeches from the night before at Rockford City Council.

Their message was simple: The IceHogs deserve to continue playing in the UHL at a renovated MetroCentre, and that an AHL venture is too risky.

David Preece and Jay Graham, who also spoke during public participation, argued a move to the AHL shouldn’t be passed up. The two had also addressed the City Council the night before.

First-timers to the week’s City Council and County Board meetings might have thought they’d walked into a hockey game, judging by the number of ’Hogs jerseys in the audience. Co-owner of the IceHogs, Craig Drecktrah, was touched by the way supporters rallied behind the team.

“The fans just went out and did this themselves,” Drecktrah said. “We do have some of the best fans. They give us all their support.”

The IceHogs have built a loyal following in their eight successful seasons in Rockford.

Arena officials, however, have been in talks with the Chicago Blackhawks for the past year to bring the club’s AHL farm team to Rockford from Norfolk, Va., for a 10-year deal.

If that happens, all current IceHogs players and coaching staff would lose their jobs, even if the MetroCentre Authority is able to purchase rights to the ’Hogs.

All language regarding the IceHogs, Blackhawks, AHL and UHL was removed from the city-county agreement. This move seemed essential in getting the city and county on board the renovation project right away.

Centre Events General Manager Corey Pearson said although renovations will likely continue into the spring of 2008, improvements to the patron level of the MetroCentre should be complete in time for the start of the 2007-2008 hockey season.

Gary Marzorati, chairman of the Centre Events board, expects to have improvements underway by the end of January.

According to the intergovernmental deal, the MetroCentre will direct its $912,000 annual operating subsidy from the city to the repayment of bonds. Centre Events leaders say the added amenities should draw $1.2 million or more each year to apply to its operating budget.

The MetroCentre Authority will also seek grants from the state and other outside sources to cover any overages in the cost of renovation.

During the Rockford Planning and Development Committee meeting Nov. 20, Marzorati said talks with Drecktrah and co-owner Kris “Dr. T” Tumilowicz had halted for the next couple weeks. The next night, just after the County Board approved the agreement, Marzorati had a new plan.

Asked what his next step would be, Marzorati replied, “I gave my card to Craig [Drecktrah] and we’re gonna talk to them when Dr. T gets back next week.”

“We’re gonna sit down with our ownership group and with the MetroCentre Authority Board and figure out if there’s a meeting-of-the-minds that can take place and see where everybody stands,” said IceHogs President and General Manager Ryan Washatka. “Obviously, right now, we’re on opposing sides.”

If the Blackhawks deal comes to fruition, the best the IceHogs’ ownership team can expect is an increased buy-out price from the MetroCentre. Drecktrah and Tumilowicz were reportedly offered $540,000 in the first round of talks.

UHL rivals, the Quad City Mallards, were recently sold for nearly three times that amount.

However, if the ’Hawks AHL farm team doesn’t land on MetroCentre ice, Marzorati and Pearson are willing to negotiate a new lease with the current UHL IceHogs. In that event, Marzorati said he will likely return to the city and county to downsize the renovation project.

Despite all contingent language having been removed from the agreement, this would seem to indicate the MetroCentre only plans to perform the full $20 million renovation if the Blackhawks’ minor league team skates into Rockford.

Drecktrah and Tumilowicz, who’d rather not have to lose their existing team, are hoping for the best.

“I would love to sit down with the board,” Drecktrah said, “[and] assist them in putting a pro forma together that would show that the UHL IceHogs could perform within the renovated MetroCentre. That would be fantastic.”

Other Nov. 21 County Board business

Chairman Scott Christiansen and the board bade farewell to outgoing County Board members who were attending their final meeting. Plaques were presented to Chris K. Johnson (R-4), Gary Jury (R-3), Eugene Quinn (R-14), Tuffy Quinonez (D-11), Tim Simms (R-14), Randy Sturm (R-5), Glenn “Bud” Wilkins (R-8) and Winnebago County Clerk David F. Johnson (R).

Eunice Bailey, chairman of the Memorial Hall Board of Trustees, presented a Veterans Memorial Hall Holiday ornament to the Board. Bailey said the ornaments, along with greeting cards, are available at Memorial Hall for $20 during its holiday fund-raiser.

Rockford Area Crime Stoppers Coordinator Rich Gambini was awarded a settlement in the amount of $46,000 for a claim regarding lifting and fall-related injuries. Quinn, Simms, Ray Graceffa (R-7), John Harmon (R-4), Pete MacKay (R-5) and Randy Olson (R-1) voted against the settlement.

The board unanimously passed an ordinance to issue and sell $18.89 million worth of bonds in a refinancing effort that will save the county an estimated $820,000 a year.

The board passed a resolution authorizing funds for the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (formerly known as the Council of 100). Quinn, Sturm, Wilkins, Harmon, MacKay, Olson, David Krienke (R-3) and Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) voted against the expenditure.

The board unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the execution of a $25,000 agreement with the Winnebago/Rockford Clean and Beautiful recycling program to extend landfill life.

The board also voted for renovations to the old courthouse.

The organizational meeting of the County Board will be Monday, Dec. 4. The first regular adjourned meeting of the Board, including new members, will be Thursday, Dec. 14.

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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