Warszawski: It's just business if hockey returns to Fresno

The Fresno BeeJanuary 25, 2014 

Do ice hockey fans in Fresno deserve a chance to prove they can again support a minor league franchise at Selland Arena? Yes, but the deal must still work financially for the city.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

First, you'd have to change the name.

Not that there's anything wrong with Falcons. It's a fine name for a hockey team. But it's also one that carries a certain stigma.

Five years later, the ignominy is alive and well.

I'm not saying Fresno should rush into into a bad business deal to bring back ECHL hockey. Goodness knows the city has done enough of those.

But the proposal by a prominent Bay Area real estate developer to relocate the San Francisco Bulls to Selland Arena deserves to be evaluated on its own merits -- and without being clouded by past prejudices.

I realize I'm asking a lot from our city leaders. When it comes to minor league hockey, they're like goons who have taken too many blows to the head.

After all, it was only six years ago that Fresno took on millions in bond debt to renovate Selland in a successful effort to lure the Falcons back from the Save Mart Center.

More than $4 million went for a new ice rink, hockey equipment, a scoreboard, VIP seating and other things the Falcons sought.

More than $7 went to update the arena's sound system, along with the boiler and hot water system.

Then -- poof -- 30 games into the 2008-09 ECHL season (and three days before Christmas) the Falcons went belly up. Leaving Selland without an anchor tenant to help pay off those debts.

And here's the really fun part: Although the hockey team vanished, the people who made that much-derided decision never did. Chris Cummings and Brian Glover remain principal partners in the Fresno Grizzlies.

So ill feelings are never far from the surface. You can tell by the exasperated tones city officials use in their dealings with the Grizzlies over late rent payments at Chukchansi Park.

There's always some teeth gnashing, because the last thing Fresno needs is a vacant downtown stadium.

All of which has nothing to do with David Bouquillon. At least it shouldn't.

Bouquillon is the developer whose ownership group has been pre-approved by the ECHL to buy the San Francisco Bulls. But there's a catch. Bouquillon won't complete the purchase until he can find the team a new home.

I've spoken to Bouquillon, and he doesn't sound like a guy with dollar signs in his eyes. In fact, he sounds pretty reasonable and well-informed.

He has studied the lease agreements between ECHL teams and their arenas. He has researched Fresno's sports landscape and how a minor league hockey team might fit. In short, he's done his homework.

"I talked to the old coach and staff, and they told me the Falcons really had a cult following," Bouquillon said.

In fact, there are more hockey fans in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley than our city leaders might realize.

Let me remind them the Falcons averaged more than 5,200 fans at Selland in each of the final three seasons that preceded their move to the Save Mart Center.

Let me remind them that the Fresno Monsters averaged 3,557 fans during the 2011-12 season, a figure that led their league.

If an amateur junior outfit can average 3,500 fans, surely a Double-A level team affiliated with the San Jose Sharks can surpass that.

Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case, details of the proposal that Bouquillon submitted to Fresno officials last week.

I've managed to get my grubby hands on a copy, plus a letter Bouquillon sent outlying his case.

People with minds more keen than mine will have to pour over the numbers, but it seems like a reasonable starting point for negotiations.

The initial proposal calls for the hockey team to pay $5,000 rent per game at Selland and for the city to keep 100% of all parking and concession revenues. The city also gets $1 for every ticket sold, plus an additional $1 for every ticket sold over 5,500.

In return, the city would pay the team $3 for every person through the turnstiles. That money is meant to offset the team's loss of concession revenues and also mitigate costs that would be incurred by renting a permanent locker room, training room and equipment room (which Selland can't provide) as well as paying for a practice rink.

Based on Bouquillon's projections, Fresno would take in $1.17 million from regular-season games based on average attendance of 3,500. If 4,500 people show up, the city would get $1.51 million.

Obviously, city officials must do their own calculations. See what computes and what doesn't. But the money to renovate Selland has already been spent.

Why not try to recoup some of it by guaranteeing at least 36 events between October and April?

If Mayor Swearengin is serious about revitalizing downtown, there are few better ways than to attract a couple of thousand people on evenings and weekends. During the months when Grizzlies baseball is dark.

Certainly, any agreement has to make fiscal sense. It can't put Fresno's fragile finances at further risk.

But if our city leaders reject pro hockey, it has to be for those reasons. Not because they've gotten high-sticked in the past.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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