IceHogs score County Board win

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11678483478812.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘One of the many signs displayed by IceHogs fans at the Dec. 28 Winnebago County Board meeting.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116784839327541.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘UHL President and CEO Richard Brosal urged the County Board to withhold its $9 million until the MetroCentre gives up on buying a team.‘);

In a massive sea of red jerseys, a standing-room only crowd packed the Winnebago County Board chambers Dec. 28 to support the United Hockey League (UHL) Rockford IceHogs and team owners Dr. Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah.

Just two nights earlier, the Rockford City Council moved one step closer to authorizing the issuance of up to $23 million in bonds to finance MetroCentre improvements and the purchase of an American Hockey League (AHL) franchise. An ordinance to approve the intergovernmental agreement between the city, county and MetroCentre was also read in, but both matters were laid over until the City Council’s Jan. 2 meeting.

By the agreement, the county would pledge $9 million over 20 years to the project. The County Board, however, blew the whistle on any plans Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) may have about purchasing a hockey team. That is, if the city and MetroCentre want the $9 million from Winnebago County.

Centre Events Board Chairman Gary Marzorati and MetroCentre General Manager Corey Pearson have plans to use the city’s annual $912,000 operations subsidy to pay back bonds. Marzorati and Pearson say ownership of a hockey franchise is essential to generating funds to put back into operations.

“Our pro formas show that we should own the team,” Marzorati explained. “If we do not own the team, our projections are not as good.”

“Everybody’s going by what Corey says,” IceHogs Head Coach Steve Martinson said, questioning Pearson’s optimistic plans. “He’s still the salesman. Does anybody go buy a used car and only listen to the salesman?”

“Let’s face it,” Drecktrah said, “The payback of the bonds is going to be hard enough. Why add the proposition of owning a hockey team?” He added an AHL franchise would be much more costly overall than a UHL team.

“Shouldn’t the city be worried about how to repair streets and offering good police and fire protection?” asked Drecktrah, taking a shot at Mayor Morrissey.

Drecktrah described negotiations with the MetroCentre Authority as being one-sided and a “take it or leave it proposition.” Drecktrah claimed he and Tumilowicz were told they had to sell at the price being offered, or the team would be taken away from them anyway.

“We have never threatened them,” Marzorati fired back. “We would never use eminent domain or push them over.”

Pearson said IceHogs owners have been on the same page with the MetroCentre Authority for nearly a year.

“Then, there was the seller’s remorse,” Pearson alleged. “If we wanted to do the hostile takeover, we could have done it without telling them.”

Pearson defended the MetroCentre’s negotiating tactics as “civil” and “professional.”

Without a lease after this season, the IceHogs have little to bargain with. The owners, however, believe they deserve a new five-year lease with an option for an additional five years.

“Owning this team is part of an American Dream,” Drecktrah pleaded. “Please don’t take this dream away from us.”

Tumilowicz and Drecktrah asked the County Board to send the City of Rockford a message that going into the hockey business should be out of the question.

Frank Schier, editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, also addressed board members during public participation, asking them to consider a number of key questions.

“Why can’t you buy 20 gallons of paint and paint your bathroom floors?” Schier asked, questioning the MetroCentre Authority’s fitness to maintain the facility and operate a hockey team. “Why can’t you keep the bathrooms clean?”

Schier also urged the county to support the arts in general and help the New American Theater, whose financial woes forced an abrupt shut-down in December.

Pete MacKay (R-5) regretted his decision to support the agreement in its previous vote.

“Every citizen I’ve talked to since then has not had very kind things to say about the MetroCentre,” MacKay reported. “They have proven they can’t make money. It’s a money-losing proposition. Now they’re gonna lose more, and we’re gonna help ’em, and I think it’s an insult to the taxpayers.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever received a call, nor I think any other board member has received a call,” Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) argued, “that the citizens of Rockford want to buy a hockey team. I have never heard that, and I don’t think I’ll ever hear that.”

Pearson had previously stated he’d present a five-year shut-down plan if renovations aren’t approved.

“I personally found that threat akin to blackmail and found it nonsensical and offensive,” Schier responded.

“That is not a scare tactic,” Pearson replied later. “That is not a threat. That is not anything other than what I have gotten from my engineers, from my architects and from the companies that I have hired to help me do a feasibility study of our building.”

Upon Pearson’s reference to a professional feasibility study, members of the public were heard to ask, “Where is it?”

“No one did a feasibility study,” Aiello later argued. “There was no independent person that came in, that knows about hockey that can look at this pro forma and tell us if it’s accurate.”

Aiello pointed out the fact the IceHogs have lost money every year but last year.

“They could write it off,” Aiello explained. “But the City of Rockford, the taxpayers, are gonna get stuck with these bills.”

“Our names are on this intergovernmental agreement also,” Aiello reminded her fellow board members. “The city has no business running a hockey team.”

Richard Brosal, president/CEO and commissioner of the UHL, also spoke during public participation.

“If we live in a society where government can take over private ownership and kick ’em to the street, and say to the community that the first eight years, it was OK for the Rockford IceHogs and the United Hockey League to play in the MetroCentre as it is today, and how it was eight years ago, why isn’t it good enough for them anymore?” Brosal asked. “One simple word. Greed.”

“It has nothing to do with greed,” Pearson retorted. “I’ve been handed the task of making our building better; making our community and our region better.”

“They [IceHogs] were good enough to stay at the MetroCentre when it was a dump, and I’ll say it is a dump,” Aiello blasted, noting the more than $300,000 raised by the IceHogs for local charities, in addition to the loyal fan base that has been built in the community during the team’s eight seasons in Rockford. “As soon as it gets renovated, they’re not good enough anymore.”

“I believe we’re at the point of dirty bathrooms or unpainted bathroom floors because of lack of maintenance,” Paul Gorski (D-5) voiced, expressing concern that less than 5 percent of the MetroCentre’s net revenue would be allotted for such care, according to the pro forma. “I’d hate to enter into an agreement knowing that we’re under-funding the maintenance, because in 20 years, I don’t want to have to renovate a dump again.”

“These owners have worked very hard to keep this downtown going,” Aiello added. “I don’t see very many other people going to the MetroCentre for activities, except for the IceHogs games.”

Brosal questioned the MetroCentre Authority’s assertion that an AHL team would attract thousands more hockey fans and urged the County Board to withhold its $9 million until the idea of purchasing a hockey team is forgotten.

Brosal pressed board members to weigh the UHL Rockford IceHogs’ proven track record against the “what-ifs” in the other hand.

Rockford IceHogs Coach Steve Martinson was quick to point out if the new franchise loses money, the taxpayers would bear that cost. He also challenged the MetroCentre Authority’s promise that ticket prices would not go up if an AHL franchise was acquired.

“After you lose a half a million the first year, I guarantee you’re gonna raise ticket prices,” the coach argued, adding that 66 percent of the hockey teams who made the move from AA to AAA are out of business. Martinson said the difference in the quality of play is n

ot detectable.

“City government should stick with what it’s intended to do,” Martinson argued, blasting the idea of a municipally-owned team. “We’ve already got a hockey team. We’ve got a hockey team that the fans like, that’s recognized. Leave us alone!”

Martinson also proposed a new name for the renovated MetroCentre in the event the current UHL IceHogs do not lace up at the facility next season. “If you sell us out for this new deal, I would call it the Seven Pieces of Silver Arena, because that’s what they’re offering.”

“The mayor and his staff, when continually questioned, finally admitted that the money can be used any way they want, which also includes the county’s portion,” Nancy Gdowski reported, referring to the Dec. 26 Rockford City Council meeting. “Government has no business using taxpayers’ money for private investments, such as an ice hockey team.”

“Your money is not going for the purchase of the franchise,” Pearson promised the board. “It is for the renovation of the building.”

Just two nights before, however, Morrissey stated the city would be able to apply part of the $20 million for renovation toward the purchase of a hockey team.

“There are other, more important quality-of-life issues our local government should focus on, rather than running an ice hockey team,” Gdowski added. “Road improvement plans, rising crime rates, the working poor, the lack of higher-paying jobs and rising poverty level, to name a few.”

“I promise you, we will not use your $20 million for anything but renovation,” Marzorati pledged.

“Private investors are able to absorb losses with write-offs,” Gdowski concluded, “but government just burdens taxpayers even more with the results of some of their unwise and uninformed decisions.”

Rick Pollack (R-13) moved to amend the resolution authorizing execution of the intergovernmental agreement. Since the county is to pony-up $9 million for the project, Pollack argued the board should have some say in how it may be used.

The amendment read, “The authority shall not own or operate an AHL, UHL, Arena Football or other sports franchise or seek to purchase such a franchise.”

The amendment was Pollack’s response to the MetroCentre’s intention to purchase a team no matter what, as indicated by Marzorati earlier that evening.

MacKay told his fellow board members, “Unless we’re indemnified against Mr. Pearson sneaking around in the middle of the night or any other time, trying to get a hockey team, even knowing that we don’t want it, I think he’ll do it.”

Some board members thought the county had already sent a message, during previous votes, that government should not be in the business of owning and operating a sports franchise.

“Maybe it wasn’t clear enough,” David Yeske (R-2) surmised. “I think Rick’s amendment now makes it very clear.”

“If you want me to put my $9 million in, add that one sentence, and I’m in for the renovation,” Pollack bargained. “If not, then I’m gonna vote against it.”

“We will not give you this $9 million if you have anything to do with purchasing a team or owning a team,” was Aiello’s message to the mayor. “They’ve got enough problems to worry about in the City of Rockford right now.”

“If we’re gonna be a three-way partner with the other entities,” Pollack urged, “we don’t want any part of owning or contributing to somebody else owning a sports franchise.”

“The economic engine of free enterprise is private ownership,” Pollack added in defense of current IceHogs owners. “We’ve got a model that’s been working right now.”

Pollack suggested arena improvements would only make the current team more profitable for everyone involved.

Not everyone supported Pollack’s amendment, however.

“I think he’s gonna destroy any opportunity for the MetroCentre to be renovated because I don’t think the support’s gonna be there from the city,” Randy Olson (R-1) argued.

After much discussion, the amendment went up for a vote, narrowly passing. Doug Aurand (D-3), John Ekberg (R-10), Karen Elyea (D-11), Dave Fiduccia (R-4), Frank Gambino (R-14), Bob Hastings (D-13), Pearl Hawks (D-6), Karen Hoffman (D-11), Randy Olson (R-1), Tom Owens (R-1) and Jim Webster (R-2) voted against the amendment.

Aurand, Ekberg, Ray Graceffa (R-7), John Harmon (R-4), Hastings, Hawks and Owens voted to lay over the resolution but were defeated. The amended resolution then skated through on a voice vote, sending a clear message to the City Council and MetroCentre.

To find out how the Rockford City Council addressed Winnebago County’s message to stay out of the hockey business, read our online exclusive at

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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