Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Avs depart ice arena, leaving city with seats to fill

Palmer has lost its junior-league hockey team after spending $1.1 million on a major upgrade to the MTA Events Center that coincided with the Alaska Avalanche's move to the city two seasons ago.

Photo courtesy of the City of Palmer
A Zamboni smooths the ice at the MTA Events Center

Last month, the North American Hockey League approved the sale of the Alaska Avalanche to a Johnstown, Pa., partnership. Team owner Mark Lee didn’t respond to an interview request, but the team had logged declining attendance numbers despite two strong seasons. Lee is an investor and co-owner of the new team.
The Avalanche left Wasilla’s Curtis C. Menard II Memorial Ice Arena in 2010. That year, Palmer's city council agreed to arena improvements like new locker rooms, hundreds more seats to meet hockey league standards, an office and equipment storage. Some $400,000 from the Legislature helped pay for the project. Lee promised to pay the city $50,000 toward the upgrades as part of the team’s agreement with the city. 
Lee still owes the city at least $25,000, city manager Doug Griffin said this week. The team also got a reduced rate on ice time for practices and games, though the city shouldn't have trouble selling any leftover time at the popular rink. 
The city is trying to find an "amicable solution" to Lee's financial obligations, said Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson. City officials this week were looking into what Lee still owes and whether any benefits the city got from the team might offset what’s owed. 

Hockey team or not, the city is still hoping to finish the project that started with the arrival of the Avalanche. 

The team's departure comes even as the city waits on another $725,000 in state funds to finish the third phase of the MTA center expansion. 

Officials last year requested another $500,000 from the state to install an elevator, generators, complete an outdoor canopy and increase arena seating to 1,100. Now that the Avs are gone, it seems the legislative appropriation would be moot, right?

No, city officials say. The upgrades to the arena weren't just for the team, Johnson said. The improvements also benefit future users of the soccer fields outside. The 3-year-old fields still need to green up and aren't playable yet - maybe by late summer, the mayor said - but once they are, players and fans will be able to access locker rooms and restrooms. The mayor also hopes to host future Palmer High School graduations at the arena.

And there's a new emphasis on a potential emergency-response role for the center that comes with a bit of an ick factor. 

A few months ago, the city council amended the description of the center's expansion plans to include emergency response.

On the recommendation of the office of the late Rep. Carl Gatto, the city in February changed its state capital request to include $225,000 for a backup generator, bringing the total request for the MTA center to $725,000.

The city in March adopted a resolution revising its description of the MTA expansion: “As the City becomes more aware of what community assets are needed to address major disasters and emergencies, it has become apparent that the MTA Events Center could fulfill a specific need for the Palmer area as an Evacuation Staging Point, Logistical Supply Staging Area, or Mass Fatality Storage and Processing Facility.”

"Mass Fatality Storage and Processing Facility"??? Yikes. Let's hope that need doesn't arise any time soon.

Barring disaster, the city is working to diversity the uses of the arena. Coming this Friday, May 12: roller derby. The Denali Destroyer Dolls take on the Rage City Rollergirls, with doors opening at 6 p.m. In another upcoming, albeit much more tame event, the city will hold a "Capital Project Fair" from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. on May 18 at the center.
The mayor said she's confident the arena will continue to serve the public. The loss of the Avs contract bothers her less, she said, than the loss of the "community-building" that accompanied the team's presence in Palmer.

"It bothers me more to lose the enthusiasm. People came in and were excited about having a home team," Johnson said.

-- Zaz Hollander
The message on the Web site of the Junior "A" hockey team
formerly known as the Alaska Avalanche. The new owner
has yet to pick a name for the Pennsylvania-bound team.

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