Will IceHogs join RiverHawks in Loves Park?

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 Boulevard, 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?

WTVO-TV-17 broke the IceHog story Thursday night, and the local daily caught up the next morning. Scott Leber reported WTVO had learned the IceHogs’ owners were to meet Friday morning with MetroCentre administrators and Mayor Doug Scott to discuss the team’s future in the downtown arena.

For four and a half 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, Leber said.

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 serves as chairman of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Smith admitted that he, Jim McIlroy and Kristoffer Tumilowicz, the three men who own the IceHogs, have discussed the possibility of building a new arena for the team, perhaps near the Carlson Arctic Ice Arena on East Riverside and Perryville Road.

With the RiverHawks new ballpark soon to go up in that area, that could become a hot-spot for Rockford sports. Smith says the ‘Hogs are simply exploring other options just in case things fall through with the MetroCentre.

All of this puts more pressure on the MetroCentre, which is already struggling financially. Can it afford to lose a key tenant that takes up 38 dates a season?

The local daily said the IceHogs might join forces with the Rockford Park District to build a new arena in Loves Park. Smith said the IceHogs began developing plans to vacate the MetroCentre a year ago. The effort intensified when financial problems threatened to close the downtown arena, and the Rockford City Council had to back a $700,000 loan.

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 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, and Scott didn’t return telephone calls to Rockford City Hall.

Tri-Vision Sports Co., owned by Smith, McIlroy, Tim McParlan and Tumilowicz, would borrow money to pay for construction. Smith wouldn’t give a cost estimate. TriVision owns the IceHogs.

Smith said the park district would lease at no charge 80 acres adjacent to Sportscore II and Indoor Sports Center on Paulson Road in Loves Park. In return, the park district would receive half of the arena’s earnings.

The 7,200-seat ice arena would come first, but concept drawings Smith released Thursday also call for development of hotels, a small convention center, possible YMCA satellite and a public school.

Executive Director Webbs Norman said the park district has taken a cautious approach so far. Norman said he has discussed the proposal with Smith in the interest of exploring creative ways to increase park revenue after the failure in April of a referendum to raise property taxes. But Norman said he doesn’t want people to think the park district is “out to destroy downtown,” so he asked Smith to exhaust options with the MetroCentre before park officials become more involved.

“Essentially, what I said is that before we would bring the issue to our park board table, we’d require they have open and public discussions with the MetroCentre,” he was quoted by the local daily. “We’ve not been involved in nurturing any part of this.”

Marinelli Field on Rockford’s south side is owned by the tax-supported park district.

The new RiverHawk baseball stadium project requires Loves Park to issue bonds, but Mayor Darryl Lindberg said the City with a Heart has no plans to help finance the IceHogs venture, reported the local daily.

“I don’t know what the discussions with the MetroCentre are,” he said. “But if there was a new facility, we’d love to have them. I certainly don’t want to see them leave the Rockford area.”

MetroCentre officials noted the facility has spent $1.4 million on improvements for the IceHogs, including a new playing surface. When Smith’s group purchased the team in 2002, the MetroCentre made $100,000 in fee concessions to help pull the deal together.

Neither WTVO nor the local daily talked about the current financial arrangements for the IceHogs at the MetroCentre or the RiverHawks at Marinelli. Do they pay rent? What’s the concession deal? If at all, how much are they subsidized by taxpayers each season?

The Rockford Lightning, the other regular MetroCentre tenant, this year is playing some home games at the new NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb because of scheduling programs at the MetroCentre. What’s their MetroCentre deal?

And why do city-owned properties in the downtown area (like the old Ingersoll Building and Reed-Chatwood industrial site) just languish when they could be improved as exhibition halls to free up more dates at the MetroCentre?

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