Ace in the hole?

The Asheville Aces, the city’s professional hockey team, make their home at the Asheville Civic Center; their landlord is the city of Asheville. And as anyone familiar with the downtown entertainment venue knows, the Aces’ home is best described as a fixer-upper.

Apparently, however, this particular tenant is antsy for the landlord to make the needed repairs. On Feb. 28, the Aces ownership group presented a proposal to the Asheville Civic Center Commission, offering to partner with the city in beginning renovation of the decrepit facility. In a nutshell, the Aces owners are offering to provide about $900,000 worth of Civic Center improvements — if the city agrees to kick in twice that amount ($1.8 million). The Aces are also asking the city to renegotiate the team’s lease and hire the ownership group to manage the Civic Center for five years (at $90,000 per year), which would appear to put Civic Center Director David Pisha‘s job in jeopardy.

The proposal was presented to Pisha on Feb 14; he and his staff reviewed it and gave the commission their opinion at the Feb. 28 meeting.

The offer comes from the team’s new ownership group, Asheville Sports Partners. The participating members in the proposal are principal owner/managing partner Dr. Richard Hoodenpyle (an Asheville-based oral surgeon), Charlie Davis (who owns an oil-and-gas company in Denver), and Bill Stewart (a former National Hockey League player who owns minor-league hockey teams in Maine and Colorado). The group bought the Aces from the team’s original owner, Florida real-estate investor David Waronker, in late January for an undisclosed amount. Aces coach Jeff Brubaker also became a minority owner when he invested in the team in January.

The group’s proposed improvements will “provide the city of Asheville an opportunity to enhance the building without raising taxes. … The old girl looks pretty good from the street, and if we can help make some infrastructure improvements, we think it would benefit the entire city,” Hoodenpyle told the Civic Center Commission.

According to a copy of the proposal distributed at the meeting, here’s what the money would buy: a four-sided video scoreboard to be suspended in the center of the arena ($425,000); video equipment to supplement the scoreboard ($165,000); a hoist system to raise and lower the scoreboard ($100,000); a gobo lighting system that can project images on surfaces such as floors, walls, rinks or courts ($45,000); new Plexiglas to protect fans from flying pucks ($35,000); and improvements to the concession areas ($150,000).

One key provision is that the ownership group be allowed to hire a private contractor to run the concessions at the Civic Center (which the city now handles). In addition, the team would receive 10 percent of the net proceeds from concessions and catering during Aces home games.

The video scoreboard — the most expensive item in the package — “can be used for basketball, the Toughman Competition, concerts or the Boat Show,” noted Hoodenpyle. The high-resolution video screens could show instant replays during a sporting event or close-up shots of a drummer during a concert, he explained.

And though the city has struggled for years trying to find a way to renovate the ramshackle facility and numerous plans have been floated, the proposal marks the first time a private entity has stepped forward to offer financial assistance.

But the offer met with stiff resistance from Pisha, who told the commissioners that after reviewing the proposal, his staff had concluded that “it would more than double our deficit.” Later in the meeting, Pisha said the Civic Center’s projected deficit for fiscal year 2004-05 is $357,000.

Hoodenpyle also emphasized the need to renegotiate the team’s lease. At present, the Aces’ rent varies in inverse proportion to paid attendance — the lower the attendance, the higher the rent (see “Ice Dream,” Feb. 23 Xpress). That’s good for Asheville, because lower attendance means less revenue from concessions (which now goes to the city). But according to Hoodenpyle, the Aces’ rent is the highest in the eight-team Southern Professional Hockey League: “The average rent we’ve paid is $8,000; the next highest rent in the league is $4,500.” And that financial drain, he added, has hindered the team’s marketing efforts — which could help lower the rent by drawing more fans.

After a brief discussion, the commission delegated consideration of the proposal to a subcommittee chaired by commission member John Broadbooks.

In a post-meeting interview, Hoodenpyle expressed frustration over Pisha’s reaction to the plan: “The bottom line is, what we did with that proposal was straightforward economic development. We are a business who happens to be in the entertainment business — we entertain by skating the game of hockey. I’m insulted that they chose to sit there and bash it. I went in there as one of the majority owners, president of the team, an Asheville citizen, an Asheville taxpayer and an Asheville voter. I live downtown, less than two blocks from the Civic Center. So they can’t tell me that I just flew in from out of town. We presented this in the hopes that we would be the first of many private entities that step up to the plate and offer to enter into a public/private partnership with the city to fix the Civic Center.”

Asked about Pisha’s assertion that the hockey group’s proposal would double the deficit, Hoodenpyle scowled, saying, “I’d like to see the numbers.”

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