Thursday, January 04, 2007

Minor league hockey arena considered for Lehigh Valley

A sports consultant is studying the feasibility of bringing minor league hockey and an arena to the Lehigh Valley.

The $60,000 study, funded with state grants sought by four local lawmakers, will help developer Abraham Atiyeh and unnamed minor league hockey partners research the likelihood of completing a $60 million arena similar to the Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre.

That arena is home to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, an American Hockey League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham alluded to the project last month after Aztar Corp. failed to win a license for a casino that would have been built on 17 acres off Union Boulevard in east Allentown. The tract was formerly owned by Agere Systems.

But Atiyeh, who envisions a 10,000-seat arena, said he is also looking at sites in downtown Allentown and off Route 33 north of Route 22 in Northampton County.

''We are going to have hockey, concerts, Disney on Ice,'' said Atiyeh, of Whitehall Township. ''We are looking at where it will have the best infrastructure and economic impact.''

The study is being done by the Leib Group, a sports consulting firm in Mequon, Wis., whose past clients include the Nashville Predators National Hockey League team and the McCourt family, which recently bought the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Atiyeh said the study is being funded with state grants of $25,000 pushed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton; $12,500 by Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh; $12,500 by Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-Montgomery; and $10,000 by Rep. Craig Dally, R-Monroe.

Wonderling and Boscola confirmed their contributions to the project. Boscola said she provided $25,000 for the study from Senate Democrats' share of economic development funding through the state Department of Community and Economic Development's community revitalization program.

The money is going to an entity called the Lehigh Valley Area Regional Authority, according to Boscola's office. Boscola said she has discussed the project with Atiyeh on several occasions and liked the idea of a study, supported by a variety of lawmakers in the region, to determine whether a multipurpose stadium is viable.

''We want to just know that the market is there. I suspect it will be,'' Boscola said. ''It also can factor in what size you want to build, if you are going to build something at all.''

Wonderling said he wants proof that the arena's economic development benefits would outweigh its costs. The study will help determine that. ''This isn't just a box you check off to go to the next phase,'' Wonderling said.

Jim Grinstead, executive editor of the industry publication called Revenues from Sports Venues, said minor league hockey teams move around a lot, and that at any given time, there would probably be a franchise willing to relocate to the Lehigh Valley if it were shown to be a profitable market.

''If you've got a market that is growing and has potential, getting a team is not going to be a problem,'' Grinstead said. Some minor league hockey teams are wildly profitable, while others barely scrape by, he said.

The arena's $60 million price tag sounded reasonable, he said, and the Leib Group has a good reputation.

Philadelphia, Scranton and Hershey all have American Hockey League minor league hockey teams: the Phantoms, Penguins and Bears, respectively. Trenton, N.J.'s Titans play in the East Coast Hockey League.

The AHL is the equivalent of AAA minor league baseball, Grinstead said. The East Coast league is a step or two below that, he said.

More here.

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