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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

Storm may find help from Hens; new arena, nonprofit status key

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Hoping to mirror the success the Toledo Mud Hens have had at Fifth Third Field, Toledo Storm owner Tim Gladieux is talking with Hens' officials about the nonprofit organization taking over his team.

Mr. Gladieux said yesterday that he would like to see the Mud Hens assume control of his professional hockey team, but the deal probably would be contingent on assurances that a new arena would be built.

"Yes, we have been in discussions with the Mud Hens organization," Mr. Gladieux confirmed. "They have expressed some interest in taking over the team if they have confidence they would end up with a lease in a new arena for the team."

Joe Napoli, general manager for the Mud Hens, said a new arena would be key for the nonprofit Hens organization to consider assuming nonprofit ownership of the Storm. He said an arena feasibility study being conducted on behalf of Pizzuti Cos., of Columbus, for the City of Toledo will help provide guidance for the Mud Hens' board of directors about whether to proceed with a deal. The study is scheduled to be released May 1.

Mr. Napoli compared the 58-year-old Sports Arena, which Mr. Gladieux owns, to Ned Skeldon Stadium, the Mud Hens' former home in Maumee. He said the older facilities do not offer the revenue potential for things such as suites, concessions, and souvenirs, and also do not keep people coming back because the experience is not that great.

The talks between the Hens and Mr. Gladieux started about six weeks ago. Last month, Mr. Gladieux announced that he was seeking permission from the board of governors of the ECHL, the league the Storm plays in, to suspend operations for next year. Mr. Gladieux will speak with the board Tuesday in a conference call.

Clouding any potential deal with the Mud Hens is Mr. Gladieux's discussions with two other investors already involved in the hockey world. He said he would prefer to have the Mud Hens take over the team, but he is exploring his options with other parties, whom he declined to name. He said the hockey investors appear to have an advantage over the Mud Hens and that it is possible that he would retain some ownership interest in the team if it does not go to the Hens.

The details of how a deal would work with the Mud Hens remain unclear, but Mr. Napoli said it could take on a variety of different looks operationally.

"The suggestion would be that you could have two boards, or you could have one board overseeing both," he said. "As far as how to run both businesses, you would have two general managers running both."

The relationship between the Mud Hens and Fifth Third Field could provide a template for building an arena for the Storm. The Mud Hens pay a base rent of $530,000 to the county and then turn over additional profits to help the county retire the $20 million in revenue bonds that were used to help finance construction of the $39.2 million ballpark that opened in 2002. The team has a 25-year lease with the county.

Having a nonprofit team owner means that money that normally would go into an owner's pocket could be available to pay for a new arena, he said.

"Here's the beauty of it - we get to pay down the mortgage much faster. It's not like a for-profit owner who has to carve out a profit," Mr. Napoli said.

The true wild card, though, remains the location of the arena. No consensus has emerged about where it should be sited - whether in East Toledo near the Sports Arena's current location as part of the planned Marina District project there or downtown near the baseball park.

How much a new arena would cost and how many other events would have to be staged in addition to hockey to make it work also remain murky issues that local officials hope will be clarified by the upcoming feasibility study.

Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said talks about an arena remain tentative, but he thinks the county should participate in any discussions. He said the county has an obvious stake given its involvement with the Mud Hens and its ownership of the SeaGate Centre.

"Any construction of an arena has an impact on our convention center, and I think the county ought to be at the table when it comes to arena discussions, and I look forward to that," Mr. Gerken said.

Mr. Gerken said he supports the Mud Hens becoming involved with the Storm as long as it does not expose the organization to financial loss. He said he would not want anything to distract the Hens from their "core mission" at Fifth Third Field.

Mayor Jack Ford said he had been consulted about the Hens taking over management of the hockey team and he has no objections to it.

"I don't think who runs it is as important as that we have a strong franchise and strong support for it," he said.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she has not received a formal presentation about the Mud Hens taking over the Storm. She said she would have to wait until the Pizzuti report comes out before she knew if it made sense for the county to get involved in an arena project.

"One of the things I've realized is that with the Mud Hens, we've had a long-standing relationship with them," she said. "We have not had that relationship with the Storm. Another difference is the Mud Hens have been a nonprofit organization, but [the Storm] is a private organization. It was a natural relationship for county government to pursue Fifth Third Field."

Contact Dale Emch at:

daleemch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6061.



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