Rio Nuevo will put $3.2 million into getting the downtown arena ready for a pro hockey team before the season starts in October.
The thumbs-up from the Rio Nuevo board Tuesday afternoon was one of three key approvals needed by the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes to bring an American Hockey League team to Tucson.
The team is seeking approval from the AHL governing board on May 10 to complete the purchase of the Springfield, Massachusetts, team.
The team also needs the Tucson City Council to approve a lease agreement, which is in the works now and would likely go to a vote next month.
The Rio Nuevo deal is subject to the team getting all the pieces in place.
The Springfield Falcons would be one of many East Coast teams to move to the West with the creation of the AHL Pacific Division.
Arizona Coyotes CEO and co-owner Anthony LeBlanc told the Rio Nuevo board that Tucson was the first and only location his team thought of when they decided to buy an AHL franchise.
The relatively short commute will make it easy for the team to call up players.
“There was actually a fairly famous situation earlier this year where our goaltender — you have to have two goaltenders in a game — our lead goaltender ruptured his Achilles heel about an hour and 15 minutes before the game began, and we had to call up someone who was at home bathing his children,” LeBlanc said. “So to have access to our players in this proximity is really important to us.”
Rio Nuevo board chairman Fletcher McCusker made an economic-impact argument for the $3.2 million investment in bringing the Tucson Convention Center arena up to AHL standards.
Other AHL Pacific Division teams, such as the San Diego Gulls, with an average of almost 9,000 fans per game, have “knocked attendance out of the park,” McCusker said.
The TCC can seat 7,000 hockey fans. At 34 sold-out games, and with each person spending an average of $30 on downtown restaurants and shops, this deal could bring a $7 million economic impact, McCusker told the board.
Fans might repay part of the arena improvement costs through a $1-$2 ticket surcharge, McCusker said, though that hasn’t been finalized.
Architect Phil Swaim said Rio Nuevo will use the $3.2 million to complete several upgrades at the arena. They include:
- Renovating 8,000 square feet of locker rooms and dressing rooms that had been deemed unusable and converted to storage. They would be used by the home team, the visiting team and the University of Arizona club hockey team.
- Repairing the “ice plant,” which creates and maintains ice in the rink.
- Replacing the dasher boards, which are the partitions between the players and the fans on the edge of the rink.
- Adding new video capabilities so games can be broadcast.
- Creating a press box.
That would all have to be done before the new team can play this fall.
For Year 2, Rio Nuevo has two options on the table. One is an additional $3.2 million in improvements at the arena for locker rooms and other athlete amenities.
The other is an $8 million, separate, off-site practice facility for the pro team and the college team, which could be open to the public for skating and club teams when the professional and college teams aren’t using it.
It would be a regulation rink with permanent ice, a skate rental shop, a lounge or café and locker rooms, modeled after the suburban Poway Ice Arena used by the Gulls.
The separate facility would help solve the problem of competing users at the arena, like the gem show, home show, concerts, circus and more, McCusker said.
Although the Rio Nuevo board didn’t take action on the idea, they got buy-in from LeBlanc, who told the board he could see that facility getting built as a public-private partnership, meaning Rio Nuevo wouldn’t shell out the entire $8 million.
But with a 45,000-square-foot footprint for the building plus parking, it could be hard to find a downtown site. Rio Nuevo can only invest in projects in the Rio Nuevo district. McCusker said there are several possible sites west of the convention center.
LeBlanc also sought to ease concerns about investing public money in a pro sports operation. He said he’s looking for a five-to-10-year lease with the city.
“We’re committed to the long haul,” he said.
“If for some unknown reason down the road the franchise didn’t work out, we would ensure that the city and the district are not out of pocket,” he said.
McCusker said the deal would be structured so Rio Nuevo could recoup part of its costs if the team leaves early and Rio Nuevo hasn’t seen a certain return on its investment.
LeBlanc also said he’s planning to bring a Coyotes preseason game to Tucson.
“To bring down the likes of Shane Doan, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Max Domi to play here at the TCC,” he said, “I think it’s just a great way to start this off.”