Despite experts, county vote uncertain

Concerned about the upcoming vote on MetroCentre renovations and Rockford purchasing a hockey team, Winnebago County Board Member Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) invited two experts from the hockey industry to testify before the County Board’s Executive Committee and the Chicago Blackhawks showed up as well.

Aiello’s experts were David E. LeFevre, a New York City attorney and chairman and CEO of Beacon Sports; and Howard Cornwall, a sports administrator and partner in Beacon Sports. The notice of their testimony brought the appearance of Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ director of operations, and Blackhawks’ General Manager Dale Tallon.

LeFevre and Cornwall spoke first, then Bowman and Tallon, followed with a question-and-answer session.

LeFevre praised the Blackhawks organization and said the ideal situation would be for the Blackhawks to own the Rockford team completely. He also went into the long-standing traditions of the U.S. Constitution and the separation of the private and public sector.

LeFevre noted that in the last 30 years 400 minor league hockey teams have folded, adding: “Four years ago, there were 115 teams; today, we have 86. It’s a tough industry, it’s more suited to private industry, rather than the public sector. … The history in the minor league of 11 cities that had teams, three teams are no longer with us.“

He also noted that of the teams that switched leagues, “loyalty and allegiance” affected attendance.

The Blackhawks’ Tallon said, “We have a 10-year contract on the table,” proudly noting that the Norfolk, Va., team had won 31 games. “Our general manager is committed to being here, and we’ve never missed a playoffs.”

Tallon stressed the logistical and travel advantages of bringing all the players close to Chicago to “develop them and keep an eye on them,” as well as the advantages of recruiting in the corridor between Rockford and Chicago, where 20,000 families are involved in hockey. He also said every time a player is brought up to the NHL, Rockford will be mentioned.

“This has been going on for a while and you haven’t heard from us,” said Bowman. “It’s a great opportunity for the Blackhawks and the City of Rockford. Being associated with a major league team has great advantages.”

Bowman also stressed the level of play is higher in the AHL than the UHL, and said, “from the UHL to the AHL player’s salaries, a lot of the costs go to us. You can’t become one-sided or it won’t last long.”

In the question-and-answer session, he pointed out the Blackhawks will help minimize the risk by using their marketing skills, and bring major league players here to promote the team.

MetroCentre General Manager Corey Pearson said Rockford has something other teams don’t have in the renovation, which includes a new video board, skyboxes and the same staff that has sold the IceHogs for the last eight years.

It was also revealed that the Blackhawks were in their last year of two three-year leases with the Norfolk team and owner Ken Young.

However, the (Hampton Roads, Va.) Daily Press published a statement Jan. 23 from the Norfolk Admirals, refuting the local daily’s report, and the testimony given by Blackhawks representatives before the Executive Committee.

The statement reads: “An article published in the Rockford Register Star of Rockford, Ill., this morning stated that officials from the city’s arena, the MetroCentre, were going to purchase the Admirals’ American Hockey League (AHL) franchise and move it to Rockford. These statements are 100% incorrect. The Norfolk Admirals’ AHL franchise is not for sale, and the AHL Norfolk Admirals will remain in Norfolk next season.

“It is true that the Admirals are in the final year of a successful affiliation agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Admirals hope that they can renew their affiliation with the Blackhawks. However, if the Blackhawks opt to affiliate elsewhere, the Admirals’ AHL franchise will remain in Norfolk, Virginia. The Admirals would then pursue other options for a National Hockey League affiliate.

“The Admirals have been in contact with the editors of the Rockford Register Star, who have apologized for their error.”

In Rockford, of the $1.2 million in salaries, the Blackhawks would be covering $850,000.

The price of the team was estimated to be from $1 to $4 million by LeFevre, adding in the penalty for leaving the UHL.

The bond resolution by the Rockford City Council has provided $3 million for purchase of the team.

A great deal of back and forth took place over the 10-year lease, which was characterized like “entering into any marriage…you keep your fingers crossed and hope it works out” by LeFevre, who said the term was unprecedented, and we might have a problem as an independent franchise at the end of the term.

Bowman countered, “We committed to the 10-year lease because we believe in it.” He then cited the 65 years of ownership experience of his team.

As to the risk to the taxpayers, LeFevre cited Manchester, N.H., which made a lot of money, which if Rockford is successful, could pay off our bond. However, “Others have hemorrhaged money, and have losses,” LeFevre said.

County board Member Jim Webster (R-2) responded, “We have a number of golf courses, we might as well sell them.”

Local activist Nancy Gdowski, who has spoken before the board urging them not to drop their amendment to prohibit MetroCentre ownership of sports teams, said: “Those are capital investments. We don’t own the golfers.”

Also in question is the outstanding debt on the MetroCentre’s existing ice rink, which was installed at a length of 185 feet instead of the regulation 200 feet, which will have to be addressed by the renovations.

When asked who made the decision to install the shorter length, Pearson said: “I have no idea; my only guess is [it was] a sight-line issue. Ultimately, it was the board and the architect. Under the UHL, there’s no requirement as to length.”

Critics have noted the MetroCentre has lost national acts because of the non-regulation ice.

Pearson said $1.2 million was still owed on the old ice, and: “We’re taking care of that on our own. We’ll sell the parking ramp at the corner of State and Main.”

Pearson added the MetroCentre wanted out of the “parking business,” and had acquired the ramp in a “tax deal with John Martin back in 2005.”

As to the vote at the next board meeting to reconsider the county’s barring of sports team ownership by the MetroCentre as a condition of committing $9 million for renovation, County Board Member David Krienke (R-3) said: “A lot of board members are very concerned with the statement that it could be a good 10 years, or 10 years of hemorrhaging of taxpayer money. We have no documentation of any long-term costs. You can wear rose-colored glasses and say, ‘In God We Trust,’ but we need to verify.”

“I’m still waiting for an updated proforma and a bond payment schedule from Corey Pearson and/or the mayor,” said County Board Member Paul Gorski (D-5). “The mayor promised me in early January that his office or Pearson would get back to me with that information, and I haven’t seen it yet. I think the testimony at the Executive Committee should have happened two months ago, with those experts from both sides. Still, they haven’t given us any financial information, and I don’t think they know what they are doing.”

Legal questions have also been raised about a previous appellate court ruling concerning the legality of MetroCentre operations and bonding under home rule. Those court rulings versus subsequent state legislation have been raised by Aiello.

Rockford Assistant City Attorney Ron Schultz dismissed those concerns, saying to those voicing them: “You are entitled to your opinion. The [state] statute grandfathers the tax and does not state any particular purpose.”

From the Jan. 24-30, 2007, issue

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