Originally created 09/05/97

Garden City on ice



Raleigh IceCaps, come on down.

The Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted Thursday to spend almost $1 million to build an ice floor in the Civic Center, clearing the way for the East Coast Hockey League franchise to move to Augusta for the 1998-99 season.

The floor can be used for ice shows and public skating, but the focus Thursday was hockey. The timing of the vote was pushed by the IceCaps, which said it needed to know if it would move before the league meeting this weekend in Charleston, S.C.

The IceCaps will face the challenge of selling 38 home games a season to people who have never before had any reason to learn about icing rules or power plays. Frank Milne, general manager for the IceCaps, was confident the fast-paced physical sport could build an audience.

"Get them into one game and they'll be back," Mr. Milne said.

The team will likely hold a contest to rename the team as its first big promotion, he said.

The IceCaps are moving from Raleigh, N.C., because a National Hockey League franchise is coming to the area, Mr. Milne said. The Carolina Hurricanes will play temporarily in Greensboro, N.C., before moving to a new arena in Raleigh. The East Coast Hockey League franchise would not be able to compete, he said.

Unlike Augusta's previous flirtations with minor league hockey, this was a chance to do business with an established team in a healthy league, which seemed to impress authority members.

Six coliseum authority members voted for the floor, while four members abstained - Belle Clark and Marlene Watkins, who were recent appointees attending their first meeting, and Joe Scott and Billy Holden, who had raised doubts about the project. Mr. Scott attempted to delay the vote, saying he and the new members needed more time to think about spending so much money, but his motion was defeated.

The "yes" votes were from Timothy Mirshak, B.J. Blackwood, Quincy Murphy, Austin Rhodes, Jordan Wright and Bill Maddox.

After the meeting, Civic Center General Manager Pat Cumiskey, flush with excitement, slapped high-fives with building operations manager George Croft.

The authority did not spell out how the ice floor would be financed, leaving that to be determined by its finance committee. The authority has $1.4 million set aside for capital improvements, and members discussed using that money for this project.

With hockey and other events, the authority should recoup its investment within six years, Mr. Cumiskey said.

Some Augusta-Richmond County government officials have signaled they would support the project financially. Mr. Cumiskey and Mr. Rhodes said they met Wednesday with Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver, who told them the ice floor project would likely stave off an expected reduction in money for the Civic Center.

The Augusta Commission is considering reducing the amount the Civic Center receives from local taxes by about $300,000 a year, but this project would keep the excess money flowing for an extra year or two, Mr. Rhodes said.

Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham voiced a similar sentiment at Thursday's meeting. He couldn't promise anything, but said he expected the commission to be supportive.

"I think the majority of the commissioners will support you in your effort to bring the team to town," Mr. Brigham said.

Mr. Holden said he had heard otherwise from Commissioner Ulmer Bridges. Mr. Bridges told Mr. Holden the $300,000 in excess sales tax money would likely be cut off, he said.

The ice floor is the first major venture by Leisure Management International, the Houston-based management company hired by the authority to bring more money and events into the Civic Center.

In making his final argument for the move, Mr. Cumiskey reminded board members of why Leisure Management was hired, and said the company believed bringing hockey was the best way to bring life to the arena.

The IceCaps contract, which Mr. Milne and Mr. Cumiskey have agreed to in concept, is for five years with an option for five more. It guarantees the Civic Center at least $2,500 a game for 38 home games a season, which means $475,000 over five years. The Civic Center expects additional income from concessions, public skating and family ice shows.

According to Leisure Management estimates, the hockey team needs to draw an average of 2,518 spectators per game to break even. The league play is from October to March.

The Civic Center will close for much of next summer while the ice floor is being built.

The IceCaps finished 30-33 last year and did not make the playoffs, finishing next to last in its seven-team division. It is affiliated with the New Jersey Devils and the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League and the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League.

The IceCaps now play in Raleigh's Dorton Arena, a facility built on the North Carolina state fairgrounds in 1951. The team drew an average of 3,200 fans a game in the 1996-97 season, compared to the East Coast Hockey League average of 5,200.

The franchise lost $300,000 last season, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. In June, the franchise was bought by Peter Gillespie, a Binghamton, N.Y., businessman.

Augusta has flirted with hockey before, but authority members said this proposal seemed more firm than previous efforts. The start-up Southern Hockey League wanted to put a team here, but negotiations fell through and the league soon folded.

The East Coast Hockey League formed in 1988 and began with five teams. It will have 25 teams in its 1997-98 season, with franchises coming next year in Trenton, N.J., and Greenville, S.C. In addition to Greenville, other potential regional rivals include teams in North Charleston, S.C., Charlotte, N.C., and a new team in Florence, S.C.

During discussion before Thursday's vote, Ms. Clark asked about the water pumped out daily from beneath the Civic Center and how that would affect an ice floor. Mr. Croft said a core sample was taken Aug. 15 to test the ice floor's feasibility and the results were positive.

"We have ample room to have this done," Mr. Croft said.

Mr. Wright, an authority member, expressed doubts about spending so much money on an untested product given the "fickle" nature of the local audience. He said didn't decide how to vote until the discussion Thursday.

Mr. Wright believes hockey will be a big hit initially and the trick will be to make it work in the long run.

"If we can grab it and ride with it for all we can, we can come out ahead," he said.