This Bud’s for you?
GJ hopes proposed arena becomes a draw like Loveland's Budweiser Events Center
Chris Stewart can remember in the late 1990s when the city of Loveland proposed an equestrian center not far off Interstate 25 between Loveland and Greeley.
Stewart decided to make a pitch for hockey instead.
“It was such a unique market that really hadn’t been touched,” said Stewart, the general manager of the Colorado Eagles hockey team that plays at Loveland’s Budweiser Events Center. “We’ve built our fan base up enough that those kids who were 7 and 9 years old when they first started coming to our games are now 21 and older and bringing their kids to our games.”
The arena/events center was built with taxpayer dollars, with a .15 percent sales tax increase to pay for construction.
Grand Junction residents are now faced with a similar proposition in the April 4 election.
Part of the proposal to renovate the Two Rivers Convention Center is to have a facility to bring in a minor league hockey team. Proponents say it could stimulate the local economy.
“When you look at the analysis, it seems pretty spot on,” said Diane Schwenke, executive director of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s something that could hold a smorgasbord of events and build a fan base that would extend within a two-hour circle of Grand Junction. It could easily give people from Aspen, Glenwood (Springs) and Telluride a reason to come here.”
The feasibility report of the proposed downtown arena/event center was compiled by Hunden Strategic Partners out of Chicago.
The city is asking for a .25 percent sales tax increase over 30 years to fund the renovation of the convention center and the construction of the arena. Grand Junction City Manager Greg Caton also said there are talks of bringing in an expansion team for the NBA’s developmental league.
Some residents are skeptical about the kind of projections and numbers given by the Hunden report. Part of the report estimates that spectators for an ECHL minor league expansion team would total 127,800 for the first season and 116,800 for the next nine seasons based on 38 home dates.
SETTING A FOUNDATION
On the Front Range, once Larimer County voters approved the sales-tax increase, Stewart and team CEO Martin Lind “did a lot of foot pounding” to market the team to the area. That was based on an understanding from ownership across the ECHL and the Central Hockey League — the league the Eagles played in prior to joining the ECHL — that a team has to get the community to rally around it.
“The first thing you’d need to be able to do is tell the community you plan on being there for the long term,” said Michael Franke, president of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Komets, who are in their 65th season. “You have to set up traditions and … make sure from the get-go that you become an essential part of the fabric of the community.”
The Jacksonville (Florida) Icemen, an ECHL expansion team that begins its inaugural season in October, spent four weeks conducting an intensive community campaign that resulted in more than 1,100 season tickets being sold, according to Franke.
Before the Eagles came to Loveland, Stewart and he and team owners estimated a minimum of 3,000 season ticket holders would be needed for the team to be successful. To their surprise, more than 4,000 season tickets had been sold by the time the Eagles played their first game of the 2002-03 season.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Rick Kozuback, who runs International Coliseums Co., and was the former president of the now-defunct CHL. “Hockey has grown a lot since 2004-05, and we believe it will do the same thing in Grand Junction as long as the right people are in place running the team.”
FROM NAY TO YAY
Members of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce toured the Budweiser Event Center in 2004, but at the time, members didn’t feel an arena or hockey team would be a good fit. Those views have now changed, along with the demographics of the area.
“There’s a much younger generation of people coming into the workforce and a lot more young professionals that could really help drive this project,” Schwenke said.
According to the Hunden report, an estimated 366,000 people live within a 2½-hour drive of Grand Junction. Schwenke noted communities like Aspen or Vail, which have a long-standing youth hockey presence, could be drawn in for games.
She also said that Glacier Ice Arena co-owner Robbie Koos said there’s “great” local support for Colorado Mesa University’s club hockey team that plays at Glacier.
The recent downside of hockey news came when the Tier III junior hockey team, the Glacier Yetis, suspended operations this season with hopes the team would return next winter.
Larry Leasure, the chairman and CEO of White-Leasure Development Co., which owns the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and CenturyLink Arena in Boise, is part of the ownership group that wants to bring hockey to Grand Junction. Kozuback said that selling 2,000 season tickets in the first season would be a reasonable goal.
Schwenke said the Chamber of Commerce has received interest about minor league hockey since 1999. Mike Anton, committee chairman for the Grand Junction event center, feels this is the best time for it to happen, saying with the increase of online shopping, it has lessened the need for shoppers to come to Grand Junction from long distances. An event center and hockey team would provide that draw, he added.
The ECHL has felt that way for a while, according to Landon Balding of Monumental Events in Grand Junction. He said a franchise in Grand Junction would also provide another stopping point for other teams traveling by bus from Salt Lake City and Loveland.
To make sure a team would stay, Anton said a preliminary lease for 10 years, with an option for another 10 years, has been drawn up if the proposal passes. Anton said the ECHL’s owners would vote to approve the move in early June if the measure passes.
That, with the addition of the Jacksonville franchise and the Worcester (Massachusetts) Railers as expansion franchises, would cap the league’s membership at 30 teams. Leasure also said he is part of an ownership group that has tried to put a franchise in Reno, Nevada, a measure that failed previously but could be entertained again if the Grand Junction arena proposal fails.
“There’s a very real chance that this opportunity might not come again,” Kozuback said about the Grand Junction proposal.