Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lehigh Valley a good fit for minor league hockey team

A Wisconsin-based sports arena consulting firm has concluded that the Lehigh Valley could easily support a 8,000- to 10,000-seat indoor minor league hockey arena the way similar venues are supported in Wilkes-Barre, Reading and Hershey.

But it would compete with those same arenas for some hockey fans, special events and concerts, according to the study.

"The demographic conditions indicate a very attractive foundation for a minor league arena development, offering not only minor league sporting events, but concerts, family shows and other events,'' the consultants wrote in their report.

The only thing today's arena advocates, led by developer Abraham Atiyeh, have to do now is come up with $60 million to build their stadium.

The Wisconsin-based Leib Group looked at five potential locations that included Bethlehem's South Side and two sites along Route 33 and in downtown Allentown, but did not specifically look at the former Agere site in east Allentown, where Aztar Corp. had hoped to build a slots casino resort.

The $60,000 study, funded by state grants facilitated by local lawmakers, located a 400-acre site ''across the street from Lehigh Valley International Airport'' as the best of the five.

Atiyeh identified the site as land owned by Lehigh Valley International Airport but said he was far from deciding on a location. All of the sites, including the Aztar property, and a variety of other locations in the city will be considered.

''We didn't get into the trenches yet and really analyze the cost of land and the purchase,'' Atiyeh said. ''That is the next step. At least it came back that the Lehigh Valley can support it.''

George Doughty, executive director of the airport, said the airport owns about 300 acres mostly in Hanover Township, Northampton County, between Airport and Schoenersville roads behind Gregory's Steakhouse. It is seeking to have the property rezoned to nonresidential uses, but no decisions have been made about what to do with the land or how much would be sold.

There could be some height restrictions on development and definitely a prohibition on residential housing.

''If we do release this land, we will release it at the maximum value we can,'' Doughty said. ''If a hockey arena generates the maximum value, then we will look it at.''

The detailed, 100-page study, which includes a phone survey of about 1,000 area residents, recommends stadium supporters seek out a top-flight minor league hockey team in the American Hockey League—the equivalent of Triple-A minor league baseball—but it also suggests an East Coast Hockey League team — akin to Double-A — could fit.

Commissioners of both leagues said Monday that they would be very interested in establishing teams in the Lehigh Valley if the right arena deal came together, due to its geographic location and population growth.

''It would be a great fit for us with Wilkes-Barre Scranton, Hershey and Philadelphia,'' AHL Commissioner David Andrews said. ''They are three of our most successful teams.''

ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said the owners of that league's Reading Royals and Trenton Titans would have to waive territorial rights if the arena ends up being within 50 miles of their arena. But he said he thinks both would be open to doing that.

''It is all a moot point until there is actually a building approved,'' McKenna said. ''At that point, the key would be, is there local ownership.''

Financing for the arena remains a huge question mark.

Atiyeh stressed that it is very early in the process and that he hopes to build a $60 million, multipurpose arena that would receive $30 million from the state and a matching contribution from public and private sources.

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham said he is scheduled to meet with stadium principals in about two weeks to go over the feasibility study and talk about the potential for an arena at the Aztar site.

But he said Atiyeh may have to scale his project back a little to have a realistic shot at putting together the necessary financing. Cunningham said getting $30 million from the state, let alone local government, is probably a ''difficult ask.''

About the only thing Lehigh County could contribute to an arena project would be some accommodation on the cost of the land, he said.

''I would say that hockey is still at its early stages,'' Cunningham said, ''and there probably has to be a level of practical reality brought to the surface.''

More here.

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