As Lynx owners continue their quest to find local investors to buy a stake in the team, majority owner Peter Gillespie paints a promising picture for the future of minor-pro hockey in Augusta.
"We have absolutely no interest in pulling the team out of Augusta because Augusta is ideal for hockey," Gillespie said as the Lynx practiced Tuesday morning at the Augusta Ice Sports Center.
"We certainly feel the team needs some local involvement in order for it to be successful, but we're not going to sell it to move it."
Since news of the possible sale of the team broke last week, rumors have been flying around town that Gillespie is looking to sell to owners who would relocate the team.
Part of the speculation has been fueled by the team's attendance problems. Attendance at the first five home games was down 19 percent from last season, and the team's season-ticket base and corporate sponsorships have also taken substantial hits.
Gillespie says the attendance slump can be fixed, and vowed that the current owners are doing "everything we can" to renegotiate a new lease with Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.
The Lynx signed a five-year lease with the civic center through the end of this season with an option to renew for five more years.
"Whoever says we're looking to move the team has no idea what they're talking about," Gillespie said. "Yes, we want to sell part of the team, but I'm planning on staying involved as a majority owner. If someone local wants to make me an offer to buy the whole team, then I'll listen. But I would like to stay involved."
Gillespie said he has looked into the possibility of putting a team in Sarasota, Fla., but that the sale of the Lynx would have no bearing on that venture.
"I've been talking to those people down there for a couple of years," Gillespie said. "That has nothing to do with Augusta."
East Coast Hockey League president Brian McKenna reaffirmed the league's interest in ensuring the success of hockey in Augusta.
"We're still very committed to the city of Augusta as a viable market, and the ownership group is committed, as well," McKenna said. "Mr. Gillespie expressed to me that he feels some local ownership would be best for the team, and we concur that most memberships, whatever the city, can benefit from local owners."
Minority owner Mark Vieira says the current owners are working to ensure the long-range viability of hockey in Augusta, regardless of whether they sell the team.
Vieira would not disclose the names of prospective local buyers or their asking price, but recent sales of other ECHL teams have been reported in the $1.5 million-$2 million range.
Gillespie and his son, George, a Greenville, S.C., businessman, own 75 percent of the team. Vieira and Dolph Von Arx of Fort Myers, Fla., own 12.5 percent each.
"As of right now, I'm not certain if there's going to be local people interested, although several have expressed interest," Vieira said. "In the meantime, we're going to run the team like we're keeping the team. The hockey team isn't going anywhere. If things aren't going in the right direction as far as selling and promoting the team, we'll do what's best to steer the ship in the right direction."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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