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Private sector rallies to save Cents (2/02)

By Ian Ross The fate of North Bay's money-losing Ontario Hockey League team and whether or not it heads to Michigan will be decided this month when the league's board of governors reconvenes to consider two proposals from a local co

By Ian Ross

The fate of North Bay's money-losing Ontario Hockey League team and whether or not it heads to Michigan will be decided this month when the league's board of governors reconvenes to consider two proposals from a local community-led group and a Saginaw, Mich. businessman.

As of mid-January, the Save the Cents campaign needed to raise $1.3 million from private investors, on top of the $1.7 million already promised, to match Richard Garber's $2-million (US) price. Garber is the businessman who bought the team before Christmas.

Though encouraged by brisk season ticket sales and the city's support in renegotiating a new arena deal for the Centennials, the OHL board of governors, who must grant final approval of any franchise sale, granted the North Bay group an extension until the second week of February to fully demonstrate their support.

"This rally has been unprecedented in North Bay," says Ray Irwin, a North Bay minority owner of the OHL's Erie Otters, who is leading the campaign with businessman Al McDonald. "The business community has led the charge in purchasing blocks of 20 and 40 season tickets. It's been phenomenal."

North Bay and District Chamber of Commerce president Dave Medicino says losing the 20-year-old franchise, which transferred to the Gateway City from Niagara Falls in 1982, would not only be a blow to the city's prestige, but would represent an estimated $7-million economic loss to the community.

"That's the top calibre hockey league at the junior level, and there's a certain status symbol with that," says Medicino, whose chamber staff organized a season ticket drive, signing up 2,700 subscribers for the next hockey season.

Years of consecutive losing seasons for the Centennials in the mid-to-late 1990s drove away once-rabid fans in Memorial Gardens. However, the unexpected news in late December that the team had been sold to Garber for $2 million US generated a widespread outpouring of support from the public.

"Hopefully this is a wake-up call," says Medicino. "The product on the ice has to provide good entertaining hockey, but the fans have to get out and support the team."

Owners Ted Thomson and Dr. Bill Finnis claimed fizzling attendance had cost them $224,000 last year, and they are likely to lose the same amount this season.

"As owners you can’t expect to lose money year after year," says Medicino. "There's been a lot of sniffing around by (American interests) for teams that may be in financial trouble."

Under a new lease agreement tabled by the city, the potential new Centennials owner will pay $5,000 a year to rent Memorial Gardens, down from $34,000, and will receive arena concessions management with expanded rights to make the job of securing investors easier.

Irwin plans to work the phones for those investors up until Feb. 12 when the league governors render their final decision based on the presentations from the two parties.

Initially looking to attract a deep-pocketed "white knight" to raise the money quickly, Irwin resorted to cobbling together a growing coalition of private investors. Given the new time frame, Irwin does not anticipate encountering any problems.

"Let's just say I was able to raise $1.7 million in 10 working days, and if everybody else that I talked to was able to write a cheque, we’d probably be up to $3.5 million."

In his pitch to the league governors on Jan. 15 in Ottawa, Irwin said the transfer of the Centennials to Michigan would represent an "erosion" of the league's traditional fan base in Northern Ontario and cause more travel and scheduling headaches for their northern rivals in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.

He believes their seven-person delegation may have swayed many individual team owners who would be faced with the same problems. "Yet they cannot dismiss the agreement in principle (with Garber) that is currently on the table."

North Bay city councillor Susan Church, who helped negotiate the arena deal package, says the same sort of commitment that rallied the community and influenced the decision-makers should be duplicated for other economic development endeavours to retain large organizations, like Ontario Northland, that deliver considerable local spinoffs.

"In North Bay's case we've proven we can become mobile and we can have our citizens speak out and have their views known," Church says. "Sometimes it's too late when they're already gone, so to be proactive is obviously beneficial."