IceHogs’ co-owner asks board to allow government partnership

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906760632082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘At least one fan’s fear may come true if the County Board reverses its vote to endorse the City of Rockford and IceHogs’ owners to make a partnership removing the IceHogs UHL franchise from private ownership.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906764332082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Craig Drecktrah was not sitting next to co-owner Kris Tumilowicz during the meeting.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906765732082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘UHL Commissioner Richard Brosal accused the Morrissey administration and MetroCentre of back-door politics‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906767332082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘IceHogs fans quietly state their own case to City Legal Director Patrick Hayes, showing lower attendance at Peoria’s American Hockey League games than the IceHogs United Hockey League game-attendance at the MetroCentre, which is the second-highest in the UHL this season.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906768732082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Frank Schier, editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, talks with Dr. Kris Tumilowicz at the County Board meeting Jan. 11.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906762232082.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Dr. Kris Tumilowicz's speech alluded to an AHL deal.‘);

“I come before you to respectfully request that you reconsider the Dec. 28 vote,” IceHogs majority owner Dr. Kris Tumilowicz (“Dr. T”) said to an unsuspecting County Board Jan. 11, “to allow Tri-Vision to fully explore and negotiate a private-public partnership with the Metro Authority.”

Just two weeks after the board offered up $9 million to the MetroCentre renovation project, on the condition that no government body may own a sports franchise, Tumilowicz asked board members to now allow for that option.

“There are cities like Des Moines, Omaha, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Chicago,” Tumilowicz stated during public participation. “Those fans want to come to Rockford to watch hockey.”

Noting the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliations of the aforementioned cities, board member Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) asked Dr. T if he was leaning toward staying with the current United Hockey League (UHL) or moving to the AHL.

“We have gotten every good sponsor we can possibly get, so we’re concerned about that,” Dr. T responded, implying a limit to growth in the UHL. “Can we do that with the AHL? You bet.”

Pressed again for an answer, Dr. T told the board member, “Mary Ann, honest to God, I am undecided.”

Board members and fans alike were astonished by the latest twist. Jim Webster (R-2) promptly called for a recess so the board could discuss the new development.

A Republican Party caucus was immediately held in a conference room just off the board chambers. The Rock River Times Editor and Publisher Frank Schier saw Tumilowicz and MetroCentre Board Chairman Gary Marzorati leave the public gallery and go into the conference room. He told the county sheriff he wanted to go into the meeting and was told “they don’t want any members of the press back there.” Schier replied the sheriff should tell them that would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act. He did. The sheriff came back and said, “You can go back.”

Schier reported Tumilowicz and Marzorati were standing against the wall surrounded by a semi-circle of Republicans. Aiello did most of the questioning.

Tumilowicz and Marzorati were unsure about what the ownership percentage of the team would be between Tumilowicz and the MetroCentre. The figures ranged from 41/59 or 50/50 percent. One-third for Tumilowicz and two-thirds for the Metro Centre were also mentioned.

Tumilowicz and Marzorati stressed a Jan. 15 deadline had been set by the Blackhawks for a decision.

Aiello said she didn’t like hearing about this “five minutes before the meeting.”

Dave Yeske (R-2) said, “I don’t like these surprise attacks.”

A consensus was reached that the matter would be put on the agenda for the next full meeting of the board Jan. 25, and everyone left the conference room.

Despite appearing to have much to say, IceHogs co-owner Craig Drecktrah left the meeting without comment.

“He was not speaking for Craig,” UHL Commissioner Richard Brosal said of Tumilowicz during the recess. “He stands before you, and it’s amazing, ’cause he’s sounding just like them now.”

Standing beside Marzorati and MetroCentre General Manager Corey Pearson, Tumilowicz addressed the press.

“The renovations are expensive,” noted Dr. T. “We’ve gotta get the corporate dollars to sponsor that, and maybe it takes another league to do it.”

Tumilowicz said the plan would result in added community involvement and pride, comparing this ownership model to that of the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by shareholders.

“We were talking to [Mayor] Larry Morrissey (I), and he was even suggesting that we should have stock certificates and things you can hang on the wall,” Dr. T told Ken DeCoster on WNTA Jan. 12. “I think it’s kind of a cool idea.”

Because the team would not actually be owned by shareholders, the stock certificates would be sold only as novelty merchandise.

Just before the meeting, Tumilowicz signed an agreement to negotiate in good faith with the Authority.

Brosal alleged Dr. T had been coerced by Marzorati and Morrissey.

“Clearly, his (Morrissey’s) actions following two weeks ago, your vote, clearly show that it is not about the renovation,” Brosal told the board. “It is about owning and operating a hockey team. Specifically, the American Hockey League, affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks.”

The Blackhawks remain silent on the issue.

“Kris is afraid of losing everything, so they’ve conquered and divided,” Brosal told reporters. “He’s been scared into having to make a decision as to whether or not he can survive in this community if the MetroCentre doesn’t get the renovation.”

Brosal added Tumilowicz will face a $400,000 UHL exit fee should he move his team to the AHL.

“He’s had city people tell him that they’ll consider taking care of that exit fee for him,” Brosal said.

Tumilowicz said he believes he’s exempt since the team does not have a lease for next season and assured the issue will be on the Jan. 18 agenda for the UHL Board of Governors, of which he’s a member.

Brosal pledged to protect the legal rights of his league, implying a court battle could ensue. Brosal challenged Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes to “bring it on.”

Marzorati has argued the Authority must own the team to make its $450,000 annual payments proposed under the renovation plan.

Jan. 11, however, he stated: “We are not buying their team. We’re gonna go into a partnership with them.”

“All the current figures were determined by in-house biased participants,” Nancy Gdowski argued during public comment, noting taxpayers would be responsible for any losses. “To add insult to injury, the city and MetroCentre never even said, ‘Thank you, County Board, for your $9 million.’”

Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes, who took the podium next during public participation, referenced a $55 million expansion to Peoria’s civic center.

“In order to keep pace, we need to upgrade our MetroCentre,” Hayes said. “If we don’t, it will fail. That’s why everyone likes the idea of a renovation, and we are truly grateful for the County considering participating.”

Hayes noted a provision in state law stating the MetroCentre could own a franchise and urged the County to join the City’s plan.

“It is much more likely to succeed, in the judgment of our City Council, if there’s an ownership of the sports franchise,” Hayes stated. “We’d ask you to consider your vote and move forward with us, the MetroCentre Authority and Tri-Vision Sports [IceHogs ownership group] in that direction.”

After Hayes brought it up, Brosal took an opportunity to further discuss the goings-on in Peoria.

“Look at Peoria,” Brosal urged. “Look at the other cities that have gone from AA to AAA. Their attendance dropped. Their figures all dropped.”

The Authority anticipates increased attendance under the AHL, not a decline.

“The renovations have to come first,” Dr. T argued. “If you build it, all those fans will come.”

Tumilowicz said if the bonds to fund renovations are to be paid off in 20 years, “a bigger show” will be necessary.

Despite the board’s Dec. 28 decision, the city has been moving forward with the intention of changing the county’s mind and purchasing a team.

At the Jan. 2 Rockford City Council meeting, 11th Ward Ald. Jeff Holt (D) pointed out an oversight in the city’s proposed funding of the project. Holt noted the 1 percent Metro Tax, which funds the MetroCentre’s annual $912,000 subsidy, is set to expire in 2018. Since the renovation plan is a 20-year commitment, Holt introduced a resolution to extend the tax by 10 years at the Jan. 8 council meeting, and it was referred to committee.

The Redevelopment Fund receives revenue from the Metro Tax. Created in 1978, while Rockford was under home rule, the Metro Tax consists of: 1 percent levied on all food and beverage sales in restaurants; 1 percent levied on all alcohol and liquor retail sales; and 1 percent levied on hotel/motel room sales.

Assistant City Attorney Ron Schultz said: “It all goes into one big pot, and what comes out can

not be identified as coming from one of these sources.” He estimated the Metro Tax garnered about $3 million each year.

“I am told that, after Rockford lost home rule,” Holt explained, “the state legislature passed a bill allowing non-home rule communities to keep this tax and that the Council can, by resolution, extend it.”

Schultz confirmed extensions occurred in 1990 and 2004.

Home rule was rejected by voters in 1983, and a class-action lawsuit was filed in 1985 against the city to get rid of the Metro Tax by Royal Liquor Mart, Hollywood Food Services and August Sacco. They lost the case on the local circuit and appeal levels based on the opinion that a contractual commitment had been made by the city for the bonds and that could not be violated.

However, Aiello asserts the decision was also made on the basis the city was committed to pay for the operating deficit under those bond conditions, and not for renovations under the current proposal.

Schultz did not return phone calls about Aiello’s assertion by deadline, but he did say in an earlier interview that the home rule taxes were grandfathered in by a bill brought to Springfield by E.J. “Zeke” Giorgi, which Schultz thought was passed in 1989.

Opponents also argue expenses associated with operating an AHL franchise, such as a yearly affiliation fee, may be too costly.

Tumilowicz says the $850,000 annual AHL affiliation fee would cover many of the same expenses, such as insurance and salaries, which team owners are paying now. Dr. T said, in the UHL, those costs account for about $800,000 of the team’s $2.2 million budget.

Asked why the new circumstances should sway the county’s position that government shouldn’t be involved in team ownership, Marzorati said he felt the board’s Dec. 28 vote was a reflection of their desire for current IceHogs owners to be treated fairly.

“A number of the members that voted for the amendment really said, ‘We want you to make sure you have a deal with the IceHogs where they’re happy,’” Marzorati explained.

The Rock River Times then asked how happy Craig Drecktrah was about the latest developments.

“We’re still talking, but we need to have a unified front for this evening,” responded Tumilowicz, who is 51-percent owner of the team. “I’m the spokesperson.”

Jan. 12, Dr. T told WNTA’s Ken DeCoster he and Craig have differing viewpoints on whether to go with the UHL or AHL.

“I heard today that Craig, the other partner, got forced out,” said Pete MacKay (R-5). “I think the end result of this is probably gonna be American Hockey League. If that happens, it’s gonna be a big money-loser. Right now, I’d not be inclined to support that.”

While some board members hold steadfast to their conviction government has no place owning a hockey team, others just want the current owners treated fairly, as Marzorati suggested.

“My opinion is: OK, if they’ve got things worked out, we need to get going on the renovations,” explained Phil Johnson (D-8). “If he’s comfortable with it, and they’ve got whatever deal they’ve got, I think then, we wanna do it.”

One thing the board hasn’t publicly considered is the possibility of Dr. T selling out to the Authority if the County OKs the public-private partnership. If that were to happen, the city and MetroCentre would end up with exactly what they wanted in the first place.

It is unclear whether the agreement, expected to be presented Jan. 25, will contain any language keeping Tumilowicz on the hook long term.

“This is too quick to be voting on something,” Aiello said. “I think it’s better that we lay it over for two weeks to find out what the details are and go from there, and see if it’s an AHL or UHL team.” Aiello concluded, “It sounded like an AHL team.”

The matter has been placed on the Jan. 25 agenda, with an outcome looking to be too close to call.

Other unknown factors in the cost equation are which firm is going to be the construction manager for the renovations and how much are they going to be paid. Reportedly, the firm will be recommended for approval to the MetroCentre Authority Board by a volunteer committee headed by Attorney Rita Pirrello-Epperson.

The minutes of the last MetroCentre Authority Board meeting, which will not be approved until the Jan. 17 meeting, read as follows: “Ms. Pirrello-Epperson stated there was no report at this time and has determined the need to hire a Construction Manager. The Construction Manager would be in charge of putting out an RFP to handle different things. Ms. Pirrello-Epperson stated her committee is putting out an RFQ in the newspaper, will go through a process of selecting their recommendations and bring the committee’s recommendation back to the Board for a full vote. Ms. Pirrello-Epperson stated, typically, a Construction Manager is paid 2 to 5% of the construction amount and our construction amount is estimated at $15 million, an estimated $5 million to pay for the Construction Manager and remaining portion of the funds will go towards finishing touches and towards FF&E list.”

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.

From the Jan. 17-23, 2007, issue

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