Editorial: Help the hometown IceHogs

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11642313913496.jpg’, ”, ‘" ..Fight! Fight! Fight for what’s right! Fix the arena and its management. Go, IceHogs!" Frank Schier, Editor & Publisher, The Rock River Times‘);

Imagine, you wake up one day, and you own your own business. Imagine, you wake up the next day, and the City of Rockford says they own it—you’re being moved out and an out-of-town franchise is moving in—it’s a “hostile takeover,” as IceHogs co-owner Dr. Kris Tumilowicz has aptly characterized this entire clumsy incident.

In what one IceHogs fan characterized as “a sneak attack,” the city, county and MetroCentre administrations dropped a bomb on one of the River District’s premier attractions. Although discussions had been going on for about a year, a sudden proposal was announced as a “fait accompli.” The deal is done, and that’s it.

However, the deal was anything but done. Neither the buy-out of the UHL IceHogs, nor the acquisition of the AHL Blackhawks were complete with signed contracts. The whole affair was sloppy and embarrassing for the Larry Morrissey and MetroCentre administrations. After the big hoopla of a press conference, the only thing certain was uncertainty.

Although the Winnebago County Taxpayers’ effort to defeat the city-proposed sales tax was largely self-serving for an elite few, their assertion that the new IceHogs deal should be put before the voters has merit. It’s a 20-year commitment. It’s a commitment linked to MetroCentre management that has been less than august.

Nancy Gdowski’s call for a complete plan for the project is wise. As Gdowski also noted, the $912,000 yearly subsidy from the city to the MetroCentre, plus the additional $400,000 not collected in property taxes each year, is another “shareholder” burden. Besides that, those who want a “share” of those future community redevelopment funds could be left out in the cold and dark.

Keeping the public in the dark seems to be becoming the style of the Morrissey administration—remember the home rule fiasco? Although he said he had mentioned home rule on the Ken DeCoster Show during the campaign, Morrissey’s pitch of home rule came as a complete surprise to almost all of his supporters, just as IceHog fans and the rest of us are surprised to learn that the city had been negotiating with the Blackhawks for a year. Now, we have $200,000 in state aid for Labor Day Flood victims being kept “secret.” These behind-closed-doors and back-room dealings do not fit with Morrissey’s campaign promises of an open administration.

As to administration, the MetroCentre authority hasn’t been too good at it. Under Centre Events management, Davis Park has lost Fiesta Hispana, the Celtic Games, Wing Ding, Chili Shoot Out, and Bluesfest. Davis Park is tremendously under-utilized.

The RAMIs, Champions for Charity on Ice and 100 Men Who Cook are no longer held in the arena. Taste of Rockford, Rib Fest, and OctoberFest were driven away from the arena by cost and percentage-of-concessions demanded by the arena.

The Coronado Theatre is no longer managed by Centre Events, largely because Mary Ann Smith was so unhappy with the results management produced.

The word on the street, even from some On The Waterfront and Stars & Guitars volunteers, is the MetroCentre is just too unfriendly to deal with operationally and economically. For Davis Park, all that’s left is the Fourth of July and the Firefighters exposition, with no new events garnered to replace the lost events. The NIU Convocation Center has really provided some competition, too, for arena events.

Again, the MetroCentre does not pay property taxes, and Coronado and Davis Park are no longer covered by the $912,000 yearly subsidy—but it remains at the same level for less work, and results. In the history of the arena, it’s never been able to operate without the subsidy.

Yes, the arena is too small, by about 5,000 seats, and needs renovation. But who’s to say in two more years, complete with the almost mandatory construction cost overruns, Centre Events Manager Corey Pearson and the MetroCentre Board will not come back to the taxpayers and need more money?

Considering all of the lost events and the current fiasco, right now, we have to reevaluate the performance of the city, Pearson and the MetroCentre Board. Some changes must be made.

We shouldn’t change hockey teams. What a kick in the pants for their eight years of hard work! Remembering the failures of LeBistro and the Main Event, the city should stay out of financing or trying to run enterprises that should remain in the private sector. Adding injury to insult, the city uses the very tax dollars paid by private businesses to compete with the same private businesses and even put them out of business! Where are our manners and our loyalty?

Word is most of the AHL teams don’t want to come to Rockford; they’re loyal to their communities. Add the city’s record in private business, add the poor performance of the MetroCentre Authority, add the higher costs of the AHL team, plus surely higher ticket prices, and the whole deal comes to a very negative balance and image.

Then, to say an AHL team will bring more people seems to be in contradiction to cities that have lost attendance with an AHL team. Yes, the UHL is fighting for its turf and is a lesser league; but hey, we’re their No. 1 team! We’re finally No. 1 at something, and it’s not broke, but some folks want to put the fix in. Pie in the skyboxes doesn’t equal our team that already sells out the limited luxury seating every game, with other sponsors waiting in line. If the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau really got behind our IceHogs, a new team would not be needed.

By the way, how does the old Soda Bar/hotel and the property taken from Dr. Gautam Gupta on Elm Street across from the arena, both now owned by the city, fit into all this? Where is the money coming from for developing those properties? wouldn’t it be a better idea to use the Blackhawk money on those projects to complement the remodeling of the MetroCentre?

Let’s stop and discuss the whole concept, with all options out in the open—as former Ald. Mel Anderson noted, it’s a question of whether or not the deal was over the table or under the table. Just like home rule, everything’s in a big rush, without a good proforma, good public input and a good balance of power.

Although it’s doubtful the rubber-stamp Winnebago County Board will rock the juggernaut for the Blackhawks, the new county board, which will be seated Dec. 5, might. Is that the reason for the big rush? Closed doors won’t tell us. Then again, a chance exists the new board might rescind this board’s decision.

Thankfully, the city council is being cautious. They should be cautious in performing their fiduciary duty. Just as we now finally back Cheap Trick, let’s back our hometown hockey team. They deserve it. Hooray for IceHogs owners Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah. Fight! Fight! Fight for what’s right! Fix the arena and its management. Go, IceHogs!

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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