Wednesday, September 28, 2011

MTA upgrade slips a bit on delay, seat scarcity

Post photo by Melodie Wright
A $1 million upgrade is underway at the MTA Events Center. 
By Zaz Hollander
Post reporter

If you build it, they will come. 

But what if you don’t have enough seats? 

Last year, the City of Palmer lured the Alaska Avalanche to town from Wasilla’s Curtis C. Menard II Memorial Ice Arena, a roomy venue where the junior hockey team served as an anchor tenant.

The move came with a cost to Palmer, too: city officials here are spending $1.1 million to upgrade the always busy ice rink, the MTA Events Center.
To accommodate the team, the MTA center needed to meet the standards of the North American Hockey League, the body that oversees the Avalanche and 27 other teams. In exchange for $50,000 from the team over a four-year period, city officials agreed to expand the arena with new locker rooms and equipment storage. They also promised to expand seating to hold at least 1,500 spectators. Some $400,000 from the Legislature helped pay for the project. 

Work got under way earlier this year. Then things started to slip.

Word came in late August that delivery delays for structural steel would push the project's completion back to Feb. 1. The Avalanche start their season in a few weeks. For a second year, the team will play without real locker rooms, instead changing in a trailer out back. 

It's also clear, however, that even when the project is done the Avalanche won’t have enough seats to meet the league requirement. Right now, the MTA center has about 800 seats. Once the upgrade is finished, city officials say the center will have about 1,160 seats. The design of the building doesn’t allow for more - and never did. 

But Avalanche owner Mark Lee never told league officials about the seating shortage. The league didn’t find out until this reporter called them Monday.

“One of the conditions of the move was getting the building up to that standard,” said the league’s director of communications, Alex Kyrias. “The league office has not been notified officially by anybody of that standard not being able to be met. Other than that, I’m not sure what to tell you.”

Kyrias said any request for a variance to the seating rule would probably have to be reviewed not only by the league but by USA Hockey, ice hockey's national governing body. He couldn't say what, if any, sanctions the Avalanche might face.

Lee, trying to build a following for his hockey team in a tough market, was less than happy to hear about that phone call.

“Thanks very much,” he said.

When asked about any plans to contact the league, Lee said, “I don’t really think it’s any of your business.”

Told that the business of the Avalanche is the business of the City of Palmer, Lee said he would have no comment.

The city has said it could be possible to add another 400 seats though that would take a whole other construction project and a new addition to the north side of the building. On Tuesday night, the city council unanimously approved changes to the city's agreement with the Avalanche. Among the changes: the city promised to provide at least 1,100 seats in the arena, with a commitment to pursue grant funding for 1,500 in the future. Lee told the council he was OK with the changes. He's been very complimentary of the city's desire to work with this team.

This week, city crews were busy installing wall-mounted brackets for television monitors. Fencing in the upper mezzanine of the arena will give the Avalanche secure storage, public works director Tom Cohenour said.  The city also bought a used washer and dryer and installed plumbing and electric in a utility room so the team can have a working laundry.

City council member Brad Hanson, a longtime hockey and football coach, was instrumental in the construction of the ice arena. Hanson said before Tuesday's meeting that the upgrades at the MTA Events Center are about more than the Avalanche. Hanson said new restrooms will be accessible to soccer players outside. Mayor DeLena Johnson is hoping to hold Palmer High School's graduation in the arena; right now it's slated for the Menard in Wasilla.

It's Mark Lee's responsibility to work with the league on seating, both said.

Hanson, though, said he wanted the story to be less about conflict and more about the good things the arena brings to Palmer.

"This is a good thing for the City of Palmer and the community of Palmer to have a facility like this," he said. 

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