Rockford failed with RiverHawks, IceHogs

The Rockford RiverHawks baseball team is leaving Rockford and Marinelli Field after this season because the City of Rockford administration apparently dropped the ball on launching an entertainment-sports district downtown that might have had the ‘Hawks in a downtown stadium.

“We had a deadline of Columbus Day, and I told Mayor (Doug) Scott that well in advance,” said David A. Ciarrachi, managing partner of the RiverHawks. “When we didn’t hear any more from the city, we went ahead with our plans to move to Loves Park.

“Yes, I would say it’s too late to do anything but go to Loves Park,” added Ciarrachi. “We have made commitments, signed contracts there.”

The RiverHawks will move into their new stadium, located at Interstate 90 and Riverside Blvd. in Loves Park, for the 2005 season.

In a letter to this columnist, Ciarrachi said, “…We have worked in the last 2 1/2 years with the City of Rockford to do a downtown stadium. We had numerous conversations with Mayor Scott reference to that and only the City of Rockford’s lack of commitment to that project caused us to seek other options.”

That is believed to be the first public reference to the possibility of a downtown stadium. In a phone conversation, Ciarrachi said he was shown a plan that encompassed four to five downtown blocks including Davis Park and the MetroCentre being developed as an entertainment-sports district that would have included a baseball stadium.

“I thought it was a terrific idea, but then it was like it just disappeared,” said Ciarrachi. “We talked about it, and finally I had to tell the mayor that last Columbus Day was our deadline, that we had to know or start making other plans.”

Mayor Scott did not reply to e-mailed questions before The Rock River Times’ deadline.

The idea of a downtown entertainment-sports district is significant because now the Rockford IceHogs are thinking about leaving the downtown MetroCentre and possibly building their own facility east of the tollway in Loves Park—near the RiverHawks new home.

If that happens, the MetroCentre would have only one tenant with dates over several months—the Rockford Lightning, and the Lightning already are playing games in DeKalb because of scheduling conflicts in the MetroCentre.

For almost five seasons, the ‘Hogs have played all their home games there. But team owners are concerned they can’t continue to make “a go of it” long-term financially if they continue under their current agreement with the MetroCentre, reported Scott Leber of WTVO-TV-17.

One of the IceHogs owners, Jeff Smith, told WTVO, “Our first goal is to work with the MetroCentre and the city, and see if we can’t work something out there.” Smith also serves as chairman of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But Smith said team owners approached municipal leaders about constructing a new ice rink at the vacant Reed-Chatwood industrial site south of downtown, which the City Council purchased two years ago for $775,000.

“We came up with a concept that originally would have kept us in the downtown area,” he was quoted by the local daily. “We floated the idea and talked to several people, and that never got off the ground. When it became clear that option was not going to work, we began to explore other locations with a similar concept.”

Smith declined to say if he dealt with Scott, or if Scott returned phone calls to City Hall.

Rockford also bought the old Ingersoll Building downtown, across the Rock River from Davis Park, as a possible exhibition hall to free up more dates at the MetroCentre. Like Reed-Chatwood, it continues to languish.

Ciarrachi wrote his letter to this columnist to express displeasure over comments in a Feb. 4 column. First what he objected to, then his rebuttal:

TRRT: “The Rockford IceHogs are threatening to leave the downtown MetroCentre and possibly build their own facility east of the tollway in Loves Park.

“If it happens, they would be the second minor-league sports team to establish itself in Rockford—at the expense of Rockford taxpayers—and then seek ‘greener grass’ in Loves Park ‘out by the tollway.’

“The Rockford RiverHawks baseball team of the Independent League will move into their new stadium, located at Interstate 90 and Riverside Blvd., for the 2005 season. Fans will follow both teams to their new digs, but they should think about the teams’ loyalty and their own.

“Marinelli Field had to be improved at taxpayer expense for the Riverhawks. Now they are abandoning it after this season. There’s a chance the IceHogs could stay at the MetroCentre (the team has a contract to play there through 2006) if they get certain concessions. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

Ciarrachi: “… The first thing you need to note is that Marinelli Field was improved with money generated and paid by the Rockford RiverHawks.” Upon moving into Marinelli, the Rockford RiverHawks spent over $150,000 of their own money in refurbishing and renovating a stadium which had been allowed to decay in the last four years. The stadium is now in its best position of rehab and availability, all of it with RiverHawks money …

“Rather than abandoning Rockford, we have added significantly with tax profitability, running a professional sport operations in the Rockford community and improving their sports facility to the tune of more $150,000.”

On the phone, Ciarrachi said part of RiverHawks revenue goes into a Rockford Park District-administered fund that is used to pay for improvements and maintenance at Marinelli.

He said the only park district expenditures for Marinelli since the RiverHawks moved in have been of a minor maintenance nature. “There’s still money in the fund waiting to be used for this year,” said Ciarrachi.

However, Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman said the RiverHawks are charged a set fee for the season to cover electrical costs for the lights and stadium maintenance. “It was set up to be a break-even kind of thing, so we don’t incur any extra expenses because of their use of Marinelli,” said Norman.

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