New hockey franchise may bring game to MetraPark

Originally published in the 12/1/17 print edition of Yellowstone County News.

BILLINGS — Billings is once again being asked to host a hockey franchise, only this time it is a professional team, a new one to be formed as part of the ECHL.

“The ECHL is a major professional league with 27 teams in the US and Canada. The play of ECHL hockey is at a higher level, and there should be no comparison to the semi-professional leagues with which Billings is familiar,” said Ray Massie, marketing director for MetraPark. “This is very far from Junior Hockey.”  

Massie sees the proposal as a potential boon for MetraPark in terms of filling event dates and generating additional revenue. MetraPark Advisory Board members are broaching the proposal with considerable caution. During their regular meeting last Tuesday, the board failed to pass a motion to ask the county commissioners to pursue the proposal, with many board members saying they want more information.

The hang up is ice and timing. The four businessmen who are making the proposal are asking that MetraPark invest more than $3.1 million to install ice and provide for offices, locker rooms and training space. MetraPark abandoned their aging ice facilities some years ago.

That’s a tough decision to make, said County Commissioner Robyn Driscoll, given all the other constraints on the county’s budget.

“The county isn’t going to say here’s $3 million, go for it,” she said.

Commissioner Denis Pitman, who was also at the meeting, said the commissioners would like feedback from the board.

Massie laid forth details of the proposal, which would include a five-year lease agreement with the team. MetraPark’s finance team crunched the numbers, based primarily upon the experience of the franchise team in Rapid City, South Dakota and they believe the proposal is doable. The worst-case scenario is that MetraPark would break even and be left with a valuable asset – an ice sheet – that would accommodate MetraPark engaging other events, such as Disney ice productions or exhibition games, which would generate other revenues.

“I see an opportunity to improve our facility and community, pay for a solid capital asset, and maybe make money in the long run,” said Massie. “Investing capital money in items that can make money seems like the right thing to do.”

“This is stuff the capital improvement fund was made for,” said one board member, Lyle Hill.

Billings was one of four cities identified as a good location for an ECHL team by the team investors, two of whom are Colin Sinclair, a former professional hockey player, and Arthur Yasinski, a senior Microsoft employee. Billings was favored over the other locations because “on the map, it just makes sense” and because of its strong hockey history.  

The $3.1 million does not include the cost of building offices and workout facility. Adding those costs to the required capital investment could push the cost to MetraPark nearer $4 million. There has been discussion that maybe the franchise investors could help fund some capital costs; as it is, the investors would be committing similar amounts in the venture.

Estimated revenue from the team for MetraPark could be $1.1 million to $1.3 million depending on the attendance and support of the community. Net revenues are in the $200,000-$250,000 range annually. In addition, the franchise would bring significant direct spending, including payroll, and other expenses annually to Billings.

The investors would like a response from Yellowstone County and MetraPark by Dec. 7, so they can submit a formal application to the league by the Dec. 15 deadline to be considered in January for the 2019-20 season. A second opportunity for the matter to be taken up by the league will occur in June, but that would delay development to the 2020-21 season of play. The investment group has indicated that such a delay is less attractive to them, and they would either need to find local partners to include or possibly abandon their efforts. It would also put MetraPark under a tight schedule to build the ice plant.  

Driscoll said that the December deadline isn’t feasible.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce and Visit Billings have submitted a letter, dated Oct. 3, 2017, to the county commissioners in support of pursuing the proposal saying it would increase entertainment opportunities and is a great opportunity for Billings’ hospitality industry.

While Massie believes a hockey franchise poses an opportunity for MetraPark, he concedes that they have many other demands on their capital resources. “MetraPark has too many needs for a diversion of capital to another program not to have some impact on MetraPark’s ability to serve the public,” he said.

For example, MetraPark is currently in the process of having an engineering firm locate a 100 years of utility line placements across the property and to estimate the cost of updating and replacing its utilities. The cost is expected to be significant.

It was suggested that MetraPark could borrow ... Read 2nd half of story in the 12/1/17 print edition or by subscribing online here. 

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