Rockford gets American Hockey League franchise

The City of Rockford, Winnebago County and MetroCentre Authority skated off thin ice March 16 when the American Hockey League (AHL) Board of Governors unanimously voted to approve the sale and relocation of a franchise to Rockford and a 10-year AHL affiliation agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The deal includes the purchase and relocation of an inactive franchise owned by Gardens Hockey, Inc., of Cincinnati, and means the Blackhawks will bring its AHL affiliate—the Norfolk, Va., Admirals—to Rockford next season.

The team will take the ice as the Rockford IceHogs, following the $700,000 purchase of branding rights from current IceHogs owners Dr. Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah. The IceHogs currently play in the United Hockey League (UHL).

The acquisition of an AHL franchise is part of an intergovernmental agreement reached earlier this year between the City of Rockford, Winnebago County and the MetroCentre Authority. The agreement allowed for the selling of $23 million worth of bonds—about $3 million of which was to be used for the purchase of an AHL franchise and $20 million of which is to be used for the planned renovation of the MetroCentre.

The MetroCentre Authority Board and the City of Rockford touted the purchase of an AHL franchise as the only way to save the deteriorating MetroCentre.

“This is a major economic catalyst for the central core of the city, and is necessary for Rockford overall, and MetroCentre specifically, to compete amongst other areas,” said Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I), through a press release issued March 19. “The commitment by the Chicago Blackhawks to a 10-year lease with the MetroCentre is an unprecedented demonstration of its strong commitment to the community to make this happen, and bring even more success to the MetroCentre and hockey in Rockford—spurring economic dollars into our community, as this is estimated to provide $30 million in gross economic impact annually to our region.”

The City of Rockford sold about $29.9 million worth of bonds March 5, with the additional $6.9 million to be used for refinancing debt associated with the 1999 Coronado Theatre renovation. Winnebago County has pledged to provide $9 million of the estimated $20 million to be used for the renovation of the MetroCentre.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) said, through a March 19 press release: “This is a historic moment, in that this is the first time in the MetroCentre’s 25-year history that Winnebago County is partnering financially to provide the much needed renovations to the MetroCentre. This will increase jobs, spur further economic growth, put Rockford on the map nationally, and continue to provide the citizens of Winnebago County with a top-notch entertainment venue. What’s even more historic is that the City and County have joined together to develop a major economic development project by leveraging existing revenue sources without raising property or sales tax revenues.”

The city currently gives an annual $912,000 subsidy to the MetroCentre through the Metro Tax redevelopment fund, which has been used to fund arena operations. The subsidy is expected to be redirected toward paying down the bonds, and the City Council recently extended the tax until 2028, which will mark the end of the 20-year repayment plan for the MetroCentre project.

MetroCentre officials have said the combination of a newly-renovated facility in a bigger league, with a team owned by the arena, will generate enough revenue to cover the operations gap left by diverting the annual $912,000 subsidy.

As reported in the Feb. 28-March 6, 2007, issue of The Rock River Times, attorneys from Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP, in Libertyville, Ill., representing unnamed clients, are considering challenging the legality of the Metro Tax. They allege that when the city relinquished its home rule status in 1983 it may have lost the ability to renew the tax.

In addition to the $912,000 from the City, Winnebago County will provide $450,000 annually from landfill host fees. The MetroCentre also plans to contribute approximately $400,000 annually through operational revenue generated by the new amenities.

The ability of the arena to provide that $400,000, it has been reported, hinges in part on the arena’s ability to sell the planned 12 corporate suites in the renovated MetroCentre. To date, at least two organizations have said they would be interested in purchasing corporate suites—the local daily, which heavily endorsed the City and MetroCentre Authority’s push to purchase an AHL franchise, and local military defense contractor SupplyCore, Inc., co-managed by Matthew Provenzano, who sits on the MetroCentre Authority Board. SupplyCore also heavily contributed to Morrissey’s campaign for mayor in 2005.

In addition to the corporate suites, planned renovations include a complete exterior facade upgrade and a reorientation of the entrance to the southwest corner of Chestnut and Church streets; installation of more than 200 club seats throughout the arena; and a 300-person upper deck at the south side of the arena. Space will also be made for a new retail space in the arena’s northeast corner at Main and Elm streets.

To address the most requested changes to the existing arena, the current restroom capacity will be doubled, a new state-of-the-art video scoreboard with full replay and commercial advertising capabilities will be installed, and new concession stands and food courts will be added throughout the facility.

Centre Events General Manager Corey Pearson said, through a March 19 press release: “We are in an increasingly competitive environment with other regions. Just as the Blackhawks know that moving their American Hockey League franchise to Rockford will help them compete, getting Rockford’s name consistently recognized into AHL metropolitan markets totaling over 46 million people can do nothing but increase economic opportunities for our community.

“The MetroCentre currently draws over 70 percent of our patrons from outside a 35-mile radius of Rockford for national touring shows,” Pearson added. “Securing the Chicago Blackhawks’ affiliate in the American Hockey League bolsters our position as a major regional destination and venue for the Chicago market.”

The Blackhawks have had their AHL affiliation in Norfolk since the 2000-01 season. Since that time, the Norfolk Admirals have made the Calder Cup playoffs each season and have won two division titles. This season, the Admirals have been one of the AHL’s most successful clubs in terms of both winning and player development, becoming the first team to clinch a berth in the 2007 playoffs. The Admirals have had 20 different players recalled by the Chicago Blackhawks to play in the National Hockey League.

The new Blackhawks affiliate will compete against nearby AHL teams, including the Peoria Rivermen, Iowa Stars (Des Moines, Iowa), Milwaukee Admirals and Chicago Wolves.

Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon said, through a March 19 press release: “We are very excited to bring our American Hockey League team to Rockford. The close proximity of Rockford to Chicago made this a perfect fit. Having our AHL affiliation so close to Chicago will give us better access in terms of monitoring the progress of our players as well as recalling players. It will also be better for Blackhawk fans who will be able to follow the progress of the team and its players much easier. From a geographic standpoint, Rockford is an ideal location.”

Tumilowicz will serve as chairman of a hockey advisory committee, with additional members to be appointed in the next several months.

Tumilowicz said, through a March 19 press release: “This community has embraced IceHogs hockey and I am proud of the franchise that we have built in Rockford. Our success, and the fans’ commitment to the IceHogs, has led to this incredible opportunity to move professional hockey in Rockford to the next level.”

Rockford IceHogs front operations individuals, including General Manager Ryan Washatka, will remain a part of the new AHL organization, and will m

ove their offices into the renovated MetroCentre this year.

Washatka said, through a March 19 press release: “The continuity of having the current Rockford IceHogs staff overseeing the entertainment and customer experience helps ensure that fans can expect an even higher level of excitement and involvement with our new AHL team, as they’ve come to expect from our current UHL team.”

From the March 21-27, 2007, issue

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