Ted Siefer's City Hall: Fate of hockey arena put on ice for time being
THE QUESTION concerned the fate of a municipal hockey rink, so maybe it was fitting that the debate Tuesday was about as knocked-down, dragged-out as City Hall has seen in awhile.
In case you haven't heard, a group of local guys, led by John Hebert, a fifth-generation Manchester native and hockey enthusiast, wants to take over the operation of West Side Ice Arena. The move would follow the trend toward public-private partnerships at the city's recreational facilities, namely the McIntyre Ski Area and the Derryfield Country Club's restaurant and event space.The partners, who are calling their venture West Side Renaissance Park, would overhaul the dilapidated arena, adding such amenities as a pro shop, concession area and locker rooms. They want the city to fund the improvements through a $1 million bond. The partners would pay back the loan in installments, and they'd make a $25,000 annual payment to the city.
But Renaissance's main selling point is that the deal would ensure that the Manchester Regional Youth Hockey Association would remain at the arena for years to come. The association is the arena's main tenant and the source of nearly all of its revenue. If there was any doubt where it stood on the matter, the Flames team members who packed the upstairs gallery at City Hall on Tuesday and the parents who urged the aldermen to back the deal made it clear they support the plan. The aldermen, as it turned out, were almost perfectly split on whether to support the agreement hammered out between Renaissance and city officials. The dividing line was largely how much faith they placed in the local guys.
Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw was in the pro-camp. "This is a wonderful investment in kids," she said. "We need more people to step forward that will develop an arena that will benefit our kids in Manchester. I think these people have a great proposal here."
But the board has its share of skeptics, and Mayor Ted Gatsas was among those who faulted Renaissance for not being forthcoming enough with financial and personal information, including references.
"Would you be able to go to a bank and be lent $1 million without references?" Gatsas asked.
"Yes," Hebert replied curtly.
"I'd like to know where," Gatsas said.
The response came from John Deachman, an attorney and City Hall maven who is a partner in the venture: "In the U.S. Virgin Islands."
Good to know.
Hebert, you see, ran a construction company in the Virgin Islands. As part of the proposed agreement, a company set up by Hebert and his brother would oversee the renovations at the arena, for which it would seek a management fee. Hebert told the aldermen that the fee would be around 5 percent of the costs - the industry standard.
Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur was firmly in the skeptic camp. "I'm just amazed aldermen would consider a deal like this, without any resumes, references, collateral or personal guarantees," he said.
For critics of the deal, there was another unsettling revelation Tuesday - about 60 percent of the participants in the youth hockey association are from outside Manchester.Ward 2 Alderman Ron Ludwig, the former parks director, argued passionately that the Renaissance plan threatened to undermine the purpose of the public rinks.
"The reason you're here today," Ludwig said, addressing the Renaissance group, "is that the city of Manchester provided two facilities for kids to skate in. We didn't consider putting $1 million into the rink until people show up from, I don't know where, and we say, 'Let's give it to them?'"
Later in the debate, association President Mike Durant acknowledged that "travel" hockey leagues had become cost prohibitive for many Manchester residents, but he said one of Renaissance's goals was to make skating more accessible to city kids.
"We want to bring the kids back," he said. "As much as we'd like to, we can't run a facility. We've been trying for years to get work done at the West Side arena. Someone stepped up. I don't see the risk to the city. MRYHA is going to pay the bills; we're not going anywhere."
To stretch the metaphor, the most exciting plays came late in the game.
The board initially voted, 8-6, against a motion to table the agreement.
There appeared to be enough votes to approve the deal, but not for the $1 million bond, which would require 10 votes.
Would it make sense to approve the deal anyway?
Deachman liked the idea. "If you have an unfunded contract floating around the city, it's not going to upset us," he said.
The vote was 7-7, and Gatsas, surprisingly, cast the deciding vote in favor of the deal.
"I don't have a problem moving forward," he said. "But I've got to see financials and collateral. I'm willing to work with people; it depends how much they want to work with the city."
But then came a warning from Finance Director Bill Sanders. In approving the agreement, he said, "I believe we have a contractual obligation to provide $1 million" to Renaissance.
Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, a supporter of the deal, made a motion to reconsider the vote, and then the aldermen voted to table the matter.
"What just happened?" seemed to be the question hanging in the room.
The next day, the Renaissance guys seemed to be eager to figure that out. David Ross, one of the partners, pressed the city clerk for minutes from the meeting, which were provided in draft form later in the week, according to emails obtained by the Union Leader.
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.