A gathering of county officials, Metra Park administrators, and hockey enthusiasts met a couple weeks ago to weigh the possibility of bringing hockey back to Metra Park.
The question has been raised by a group of investors who would like to establish a team for the ECHL, a major professional hockey league.
How much capital investment will be necessary to re-establish ice in Rimrock Auto Arena is the fundamental unknown around which all other questions swirled, during the course of conversation at the ad hoc hockey committee meeting, which was held at MetraPark. After an hour of discussion the group agreed they couldn’t take the matter much further without knowing the costs involved.
The next step will be the engagement of engineers and architects to do the research and determine an estimate as to the cost of modifying Rimrock Auto Arena to meet the needs of the hockey franchise.
“We need a study with good solid assumptions,” said Metra Park Advisory Board member Rick Reid.
A request for proposal (RFP) will be issued to select a firm of consultants to do the study, by the county commissioners, who are the ultimate authorities over the management of MetraPark, which is a county-owned facility.
County Commissioner John Ostlund suggested that the cost to do the assessment be split into thirds among the team promoters, the county and the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to the county commissioners, launched the exploratory effort, which was attended by all three county commissioners, Metra Park Manager Bill Dutcher, County Finance Director Kevan Bryan, and several Metra Park Advisory Board members. Also, in attendance was Krista Hertz representing the hockey community in Billings.
A March 12, letter signed by John Brewer, Chamber CEO, and Kris Carpenter, Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, sent to the MetraPark Advisory Board asked the board “…to swiftly pursue efficient and transparent research regarding the feasibility of returning ice, and all the various benefits, to Metra Park.”
“The Billings Chamber Board of Directors understands the need for due diligence as additional information and investigation is necessary, but urges haste to ensure this unique and exciting opportunity is not lost,” stated the letter, which went on to claim that “…our county underserves an emerging and popular amateur ice hockey community.” A recent study, they said, shows “strong positive feedback from community members and businesses that would like to see adequate ice capabilities restored to our city…”
There is a time frame in which the prospective investors would need to have answers. “Ice would have to be down by 2020, so the time line matters.” The league plans their schedule a year in advance.
Hockey team investors approached the Chamber and Metra Park several months ago about hosting a hockey team, but with many unknowns and a short time frame to make a decision in order to be part of the next hockey season, the idea withered. But, interest remains on the part of investors and on the part of the local hockey community, as well as factions interested in the economic impact a professional hockey team could bring to Billings.
The investors were asking MetraPark to invest $3.1 million to $4 million, to install ice and provide for offices, locker rooms and training space. MetraPark has hosted minor leagues and semi-professional hockey teams in the past, but they abandoned their aging ice facilities some years ago.
One of the concerns about cost is an unknown potential cost of having to clean up glycol which may have contaminated the ground underneath the arena floor from the operation of the previous ice maker. Part of the consultant’s research will require removing concrete and testing to determine if that is a problem, and mitigating it if it is present, in order to get environmental permitting.
The proposal by investors remains much the same as earlier, according to Ray Massie, Marketing Director for MetraPark, who views the idea of MetraPark having ice, as an asset that holds potential to increase revenues to the facility, through ice events other than just hockey. But, hockey would fill “36 empty nights at the Rimrock Auto Arena.”
“I would love to see it, but don’t want to go broke doing it,” said Lyle Hill, another advisory board member, at the meeting.
There seemed to be underlying understanding that no matter what the estimate turns out to be, it is unlikely MetraPark or the county could afford to do the project without going to the voters with a request for at least one mill tax levy.
Kevan Bryan summed up the situation saying, “All is possible but it depends on priorities. You could do it with one mill increase. We could do it without a tax increase but it would bring us down on one knee.”
“The hockey investors realize we would have to make money,” said Massie, who agreed the numbers were tight and corporate sponsorships would be necessary.
Ostlund said that it would have to be sold to the public as “a good deal” in order to get the support needed. “It has to operate on at least a break even basis,” he said.”
“This building never operated in the black until ice was shut down, because of all the associated costs,” said Ostlund, “The building operates in the black now.”
The county also faces other capital issues, such as replacing and repairing 100-year old utilities and infrastructure at MetraPark, which is currently in the process of being researched and identified by engineers. It is expected that the price tag to deal with all of that will be hefty.
At the same time the county faces significant building and remodeling costs associated with making room for additional court rooms and judges.
Ostlund asked, if they are suddenly to pursue building facilities for hockey, what is to be done about all the other needs the county has. “Are we to just set them aside?” he asked.
“We are talking about unknowns, like attendance, what we have to have is a lot of faith,” said Board Member Jeff Muri, “What we don’t know is if we have a lot of commitment.”
The question of attendance will be important. Massie said that his figures, for a best case scenario is based upon average attendance of 3000 per hockey game.
Ostlund expressed doubt that that was achievable given past experience.
Krista Hertz urged everyone “to look at benefits to the community,” and to keep an open mind until all the information is in. “Is it an absolute no?” she asked.
“No, it’s not,” replied Ostlund.
“How important is this to the community?” pondered Muri.
“We need to quantify demand,” said Hill.
Board members took up assignments to find out some of the answers to their questions as best as they can, while waiting for the RFP process to unfold. It was estimated that it would take four weeks or more to select a research firm.