Leaders face off over rush to renovate IceHogs’ home

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11637215064579.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Centre Events Board Chairman Gary Marzorati displays an artist's rendering of a renovated MetroCentre.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11637217102677.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Centre Events General Manager Corey Pearson explains planned MetroCentre renovations.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116372191019860.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Dr. Kris Tumilowicz wants the MetroCentre renovations, whether he co-owns the IceHogs next year or not.’);

The 25-year-old MetroCentre is one step closer to receiving a $20 million face-lift after the Winnebago County Board’s Economic Development Committee voted 2-1 Nov. 15 to recommend the resolution to the full board. The intergovernmental agreement between the County, Centre Events and the City of Rockford could pave the way for some big changes to the Rockford IceHogs.

Renovations would include a new glass facade, club seats, luxury suites and retail to draw more revenue.

Winnebago County Director of Regional Planning and Economic Development Sue Mroz asserted, “Having this renovated, having suites like this, will help in many economic development issues as well.”

For the past year, the Chicago Blackhawks have considered bringing their American Hockey League (AHL) farm team to Rockford from Norfolk, Va., for a 10-year deal. No agreement has been finalized, however, and the renovation is not a guarantee the ’Hawks will come to Rockford.

IceHogs owners Dr. Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah have yet to accept buy-out offers from Centre Events, but both sides are still in negotiations and are expected to reach an agreement.

Centre Events’ initial offer was $500,000. The IceHogs’ United Hockey League (UHL) rivals, the Quad City Mallards, were recently sold for more than three times that amount.

The IceHogs are in their eighth season in Rockford, having built a loyal following during their tenure. Centre Events wants to capitalize on the team’s success by purchasing all rights to the IceHogs.

“The best thing that Dr. T [Tumilowicz] and Craig do right now,” Centre Events General Manager Corey Pearson explained, “is the players are accessible.” Pearson added, “They are part of the community.”

If the ’Hogs make the move from the UHL to the AHL, current players and coaches would no longer be part of the organization. Only office staff would be retained.

County Board Member Pete MacKay (R-5) applauded Tumilowicz and Drecktrah, while blasting the imminent takeover.

“I’m not a hockey fan, but I think they’ve done a terrific job,” MacKay said. “Now you’re trying to trash the whole thing. That’s your gratitude?”

Pearson explained, “We’re working with Dr. T [Tumilowicz] and Craig to find a way that we have everybody involved, to the level that everybody wants to be involved, to make this work.”

“The city leaders think maybe they need a bigger game, so they’re negotiating with us,” Tumilowicz said, “to step aside, so maybe now the big boys in the American Hockey League could come to Rockford, and it puts us in a really emotional position.”

Despite the likelihood of losing his team, Tumilowicz pushed for the renovation during the Economic Development Committee meeting. Tumilowicz said he’s been asking for the improvements for years.

“This isn’t just a renovation,” Tumilowicz said. “This is like a resurrection.”

Assuming IceHogs owners can reach an agreeable price with Centre Events, there is still one sticking point before the AHL deal could be finalized.

“We have an affiliation agreement, with contingencies right now, with the Chicago Blackhawks,” Pearson explained, “and that contingency is the acquiring of a franchise.”

Pearson said there are three franchises to choose from.

Bonds totalling $23 million would be used to pay for the $20 million upgrade to the MetroCentre, and the $3 million purchase of an AHL franchise. In addition to the city’s $912,000 annual subsidy, the county would kick in $9 million over the next 20 years.

Total salaries for IceHogs players, coaches and other personnel total $300,000 a year. The expected payroll for an AHL team is $1.5 million.

As of Nov. 14, UHL average attendance per game is 3,507. The IceHogs average 4,403 a night.

Average attendance for games in the AHL this season is 4,931. The Blackhawks’ Norfolk team averages 3,460 fans per game.

UHL Commissioner Richard Brosal said the AHL deal will be much more costly than Pearson is reporting.

Brosal told WNTA’s Ken DeCoster, “Why would we take something that we know is good and is working well and replace it with a big question mark with a bunch of what-ifs?”

Brosal also disagreed with Pearson’s assertion there are three franchises available.

While everyone seems to agree on the need for improvements to the MetroCentre, some County Board members feel a need for more information and that the process is being rushed.

“I don’t know how we can vote on anything,” Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) interjected. “We don’t have one piece of paper that says anything, let alone some type of agreement.”

John Ekberg (R-10) and Karen Hoffman (D-11) voted to put the matter before the full board. L.C. Wilson (D-12) cast the only committee vote against recommending approval.

“Because of timing,” Wilson explained. “Other than that, I agree with the improvements.”

Doug Aurand (D), who will be taking over Gary Jury’s (R-3) board seat at the end of the year, also has concerns. Aurand would like to see the city commit before the County gets involved. Aurand argued the County’s tipping fees should be directed more toward environmental protection as intended, and that a 20-year commitment is simply too long.

“I would hope that the board won’t shove this through at the next meeting,” Aurand said. “Because there are seven brand-new faces on that Board, and it always bothers me when things are done in what I call a ‘lame duck’ session.”

“There are way too many questions and, as a taxpayer I want to know,” MacKay argued. “The taxpayers are going to pay for it and be responsible for every nickel that is spent on this. I think tonight is too quick.”

Pearson attributed the urgency to having improvements completed in time for the 2007-2008 season.

The resolution will go before the County Board Nov. 21. Brosal plans to address the Board at that meeting. It is uncertain whether it will actually be voted on that night.

The City Council is also expected to discuss it in committee before bringing it to a full council vote in coming weeks.

While renovations are looking more and more like a sure thing, the future of the IceHogs is still on ice.

“There’s gonna be great hockey played next year in Rockford,” Tumilowicz concluded. “We’ll have to wait and see what kind.”

From the Nov. 15-21, 2006, issue

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