Aces wild

For the second time in three years, Asheville could be losing a hockey team. The Asheville Aces have notified city officials that if their latest proposal is rejected, the team may be moving to a new home. Principal owner/managing partner Dr. Richard Hoodenpyle made the announcement at a March 17 meeting of a subcommittee of the Asheville Area Civic Center Commission.

“This is strictly a business decision,” Hoodenpyle told Xpress. “But our desire is to stay right here in Asheville.”

The team’s latest proposal is a scaled-back version of their Feb. 28 offer, which called for the Aces to spend more than $900,000 on infrastructure improvements for the aging Civic Center — provided that the city contribute $1.8 million in additional renovations and agree to renegotiate the team’s lease. The Aces also wanted to play a role in managing the facility (see “Ace in the Hole,” March 9 Xpress). But Civic Center Director David Pisha turned thumbs down on the deal, saying it would end up costing the city more than $400,000 per year.

This time around, the ownership group is offering to pay for new Plexiglas around the ice rink and make improvements to several meeting rooms and media facilities. In exchange, the team wants a new lease. “We currently pay the highest rent in the [Southern Professional Hockey] League; we can’t continue to operate under these conditions,” Hoodenpyle told Xpress. “Our rent is almost twice as much as what the [Asheville Altitude] basketball team pays. We just want something that is comparable.” The current lease, which calls for sliding-scale rent payments based on each game’s attendance, has the team paying as much as $8,000 per night in rent.

The Aces are also asking for a share of the concessions revenues during hockey games. The Asheville Altitude receives a percentage of sales during its games.

A new lease would have to be approved by City Council. But the hockey team’s latest proposal has received a vote of confidence from the Civic Center Commission. At its March 21 meeting, the full commission unanimously recommended that the proposal be passed on to city staff for review and presentation at a Council work session. Before the vote, however, Hoodenpyle had upped the ante by informing commission members that the team needs a decision by April 1.

John Broadbooks — a member of the subcommittee appointed to study the team’s proposal and make a recommendation to City Council — called the Aces’ latest offer a positive step. Even the possibility that the team might move didn’t seem to faze him. “They want to begin the planning process for next season and need answers now. I don’t think it’s a threat — these folks have a going concern that other folks are interested in. They’re just good businessmen with decisions to make,” said Broadbooks.

Fellow subcommittee member Jerri Goldberg sounded a similar note: “There seems to be an air of [being] willing to compromise. … In this latest proposal, the team isn’t demanding as much financially from the city — there is no immediate cash outlay. And as for their moving to a new city, I don’t view that as a threat. [Hoodenpyle] just let us know there are options out there. I look at it as a business decision.”

Goldberg also seemed open to the idea of renegotiating the team’s lease. “Based on our research, I think that hockey will work in Asheville, and the Aces want to be a partner in that,” he said. “Although my first duty is to protect the interests of the citizens of Asheville, my hope is that the city can make this work.”

Pisha, however, remained skeptical. At the March 21 meeting, he said it would be very difficult to renegotiate a lease with the team “on such short notice.”

In an interview with Xpress after the meeting, Hoodenpyle emphasized that the “team is doing everything possible to stay in Asheville.” He added: “We need to set a deadline of April 1, but if the city can even come close to meeting our request, we’re willing to work with them and possibly negotiate beyond the first. But we need to see some willingness on their part.”

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