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Published: Tuesday, 8/29/2006

Helping Hens

NO MATTER where a new sports arena is built, and it appears to be headed for Superior Street, the community cannot afford to have the facility under-utilized. Not with an $80 million price tag, and not after all the controversy over where it should be built.

But the prospect of a busy and vital arena is enhanced with the announced intent of the Toledo Mud Hens to recruit and operate minor league sports franchises as tenants.

Given the stunning success of Fifth Third Field, which shows no signs of abating after five years at what still seems like a brand new ballpark, Hens' management brings a strong combination of experience and marketing savvy.

"They know how to do it, and they have offered to help," said Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken.

Mud Hens officials have already facilitated preliminary discussions with arena football and minor league hockey teams, including the Toledo Storm, which plays in the East Coast Hockey League.

Commissioner Gerken wants potential teams identified and ready by the end of the year. That's when local leaders will learn whether the Legislature approves a two-percentage-point increase in the local hotel and motel tax that would help pay for the arena.

Mud Hens vice president and general manager Joe Napoli says any team the group brings to the table would be structured in the same not-for-profit vein as his baseball team, with any profits returned to the county. He is confident an Arena Football League 2 team and minor league hockey team could be run similarly. The respective football and hockey leagues would guide the new teams like the Tigers do with the Mud Hens.

It's the casual fun of minor league sporting events that makes them so attractive to a community, Mr. Napoli points out. "People are looking for that kind of entertainment." And he has the record-breaking attendance figures from Fifth Third Field to back him up.

The planned arena has gained a valuable ally.

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