Rockford poised to let Lightning, IceHogs slip away

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Recently, I’ve heard a lot of talk about a new multi-purpose sports arena/convention center being built in the Rockford area. It even became an issue in our city’s last mayoral election. During the campaign, our current mayor said it would not be a priority of his administration. I think it might be time for some reconsideration.

The owners of both local professional sports franchises who make their home at the MetroCentre have claimed a new venue would be instrumental in the continued success of their operations. They insist more weekend dates are needed to boost their attendance, therefore increasing their bottom line.

Currently, the Lightning and IceHogs are competing with outside shows coming to the MetroCentre and occupying the arena on valuable weekends. Given the limited number of Friday and Saturday nights available during the basketball and hockey seasons, it only stands to reason someone is going to feel slighted.

The ironic thing is both franchises will tell you they are the ones who end up sacrificing these choice weekend dates. How much longer will these sports business executives continue to accept this as part of their standard operating procedures? The answer is, only until something better comes along.

Here’s where my idea comes in. Since it’s not very high on our mayor’s “Things To Do” list, maybe another local city would like to take up the slack. Belvidere is poised to steal these franchises away from our fair city. Belvidere is a city on the move, currently experiencing a tremendous amount of growth in both the retail and residential sectors. According to their city clerk Shauna Arco, the city of Belvidere has grown from a population of 20,820 in 2000 to 23,532 in 2004, when a special census was conducted.

A piece of land that sits directly south of the entrance to I-90, directly off Genoa Road, would be a perfect spot for a new arena. Keep in mind, I have no idea who owns this property, if it is even for sale, how it is zoned, or any of those other technical details, but I think it would be a great spot.

Imagine how easy it would be for visiting teams and their fans to come and go. Think about how simple it would be to give directions to anyone wishing to find the new place. “Take the Genoa Road exit and make a left.”

The prospective Belvidere arena could be visible from the tollway to anyone passing by. Teams and fans would no longer have the trouble of driving through the heart of the city to get to the game. This also would make a great opportunity for the newly revived Daimler-Chrysler plant to be a player. Can you say naming rights?

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Could this vacant chunk of land be the “Field of Dreams” for Belvidere? Build an arena, and will they come? I say yes.

I’m certain that if a shrewd economic development director from Belvidere made a pitch to the owners of the IceHogs and the current or future owners of the Lightning, they’d be all ears. Would these owners be willing to move the teams 18 or so miles to the east to ensure their survival? Why wouldn’t they? If Rockford doesn’t want to come out on the wrong end of this equation, we’d better reconsider whether this is a back- or front-burner issue.

Have we forgotten the mistakes that were made in the past? Every summer, thousands of people from all over the country flock to Oshkosh, Wis., for the EAA fly-in. This used to be here in Rockford. Somehow, we let it get away. Oshkosh and the surrounding area reap the economic benefits while we here in Rockford get to look up in the sky and see the different types of airplanes fly overhead on their way up north.

Weren’t we also supposed to get that big racetrack that now sits in Joliet? That managed to slip through our hands as well. Joliet spends their summers counting the cash, and we are left thinking about what might have been.

Unless we do something quickly, I’m afraid we may be doomed to repeat these mistakes. I hope we don’t. Otherwise, we may find ourselves cheering for the Belvidere Bolts of Lightning or the Belvidere Ice Boars. Trust me, it could happen!

Doug Halberstadt is a local resident and is track announcer at Rockford Speedway. He can be reached via e-mail at

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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