Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
September 15, 1996 Sunday,
BYLINE: By JEFFREY MEITRODT and MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN Staff writers
SECTION: NATIONAL; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 1807 words
In the battle over which pro hockey league will win the right to play in New Orleans, Mayor Marc Morial has already picked sides, and it could cost the city a better brand of hockey.
On Sept. 3, Morial called a news conference to announce that a group of local investors would try to bring an East Coast Hockey League team called the New Orleans Brass to town next fall and that the team most likely would play its first season at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena.
The announcement came as a surprise to the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which has spent the past year trying to lure the higher-ranking, and potentially more lucrative, International Hockey League.
Morial's announcement even took some of the prospective Brass investors, most of whom have close ties to him, off guard.
"I don't see what the big rush was," said one of the investors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We don't even have a signed partnership agreement yet."
But timing may be everything.
In an effort to get a leg up on the International Hockey League, which is just one rung below the top-of-the-line National Hockey League, Brass owners want to put their team on the ice next fall, preferably by signing a short-term lease for the UNO arena.
Eventually, both leagues hope to win over state officials and land a contract to bring their team to the new arena being built next to the Louisiana Superdome. The $84 million arena is scheduled to be ready for the 1998-99 season.
If the Brass' strategy succeeds, the East Coast Hockey League not only would get a one-year jump on the rival but would tie up the market. Sports marketing experts say New Orleans can't support two teams.
But the Brass strategy faces several obstacles.
First, the ownership group is shaky. At least one investor said last week that he is considering bailing out.
Second, the UNO arena might not work for hockey. George Lewis, arena general manager, said every other prospective group has passed once it found out how expensive it would be to bring hockey to UNO.
"Anything is doable if you have the time and money, but is it cost-feasible? For one year? I can't see how," Lewis said.
Another option is to use the city-owned Municipal Auditorium, which has more than twice the floor space and easily could accommodate a rink, but Morial said he is not ready to endorse that idea.
Despite the challenges facing the group, local lawyer Roy Rodney, a Morial confidant who would own a piece of the Brass, said the chances of successfully bringing the East Coast Hockey League to New Orleans are "100 percent."
Ray Nagin, another Brass investor, said, "Our focus is to get up and running next year, and it is going to take one hell of a force to stop us from making that date."
The idea of bagging an East Coast Hockey League franchise was brought to Nagin nine months ago by Emmett Moten, a former New Orleanian who is now a top executive for Mike Ilitch, owner of the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings. The Brass would be affiliated with the Red Wings, which would provide managerial and other support.
Moten, like most aficionados, had been astonished to see how quickly the sport took off in Lafayette, where the rookie IceGators shattered East Coast Hockey League attendance records by drawing almost 10,000 fans per game in their first season. Leaguewide, East Coast Hockey League clubs averaged 4,900 fans per game last year.
Intrigued by the idea, Nagin, who is the top executive for Cox Communications in Louisiana, began recruiting other investors. One of the first to sign on was Rodney. Others included David White, who owns four McDonald's restaurants in New Orleans, and Stan Barre, owner of Pampy's nightclub in Mid-City.
A couple of months ago, Nagin's team merged with another investor group looking into the East Coast Hockey League. That group included local shopping center developer Darryl Berger, real estate investors Wayne and David Ducote, and Steve Rittvo, president of Urban Systems Inc.
The combined entity, which incorporated as New Orleans Brass Inc. in August, has strong ties to the Morial administration. Six of its eight members have been major campaign contributors to his mayoral campaigns, giving Morial a total of $55,400 in the past three years, campaign finance records show.
The biggest contributor has been Barre, a close friend and political fund-raiser for Morial, who gave him $20,000 between 1993 and 1995.
Barre's ties to Morial date back to the mayor's father, former Mayor Dutch Morial. A former vice squad detective, Barre worked as a driver and aide for Dutch Morial's chief administrative officer, Reynard Rochon. Barre also helped lead an unsuccessful 1983 petition drive to let Dutch Morial run for a third term.
Morial has said Pampy's Restaurant & Bar is one of his favorite hangouts.
Marc Morial asked Rodney to spearhead the city's negotiations with Harrah's Jazz Co. even before Morial took office. Rodney has been the city's chief negotiator during Harrah's bankruptcy proceedings. He has a contract with the Rivergate Development Corp., the public benefit corporation the city set up to be the casino's landlord, which pays him $125 an hour.
Rodney's other partners also have ties to the mayor:
In 1994, Morial hired one of Nagin's key assistants, Michele Moore, to be his director of communications. Moore had been Cox's chief lobbyist and community relations manager. Nagin contributed $3,000 to the mayor in 1995.
Rittvo is an urban planner whose firm, Urban Systems Inc., has been involved in major New Orleans projects dating back to Dutch Morial's term in office, including designing the traffic pattern for the 1984 world's fair and the parking lot for the failed River City casino boats on the Mississippi River.
Berger is a major New Orleans developer with longtime ties to Morial and his family. Berger has contributed $7,500 to Morial's mayoral campaigns, and his firm, Darryl Berger & Associates, contributed $1,000 to Rebuild New Orleans, a group formed to finance an advertising campaign in 1995 promoting Morial's $172 million capital improvements program.
Rodney said the group's connections to the Morial administration have nothing to do with the mayor's endorsement of the Brass proposal.
"Marc Morial hasn't done anything for us at all, except to say he'd welcome the team," Rodney said. "And we haven't asked him to do anything."
But Morial said he has talked with members of the Brass investor group about letting them lease the Municipal Auditorium for the 1997-98 season. In fact, one Brass investor said he thought his group already had a tentative deal.
"I didn't say no, but I also didn't say absolutely, yes, come on down," Morial said. "Like all of these things, you have to sit down and discuss what's possible. We'd lease the auditorium to anybody who has a check."
The UNO arena remains the preferred option, but the arena's floor space is 50 feet too short for professional hockey, UNO officials said. To expand the arena and build a rink probably would cost $1.5 million to $2 million, sports experts said.
Rodney said the group has budgeted about $1.2 million for the project. But Nagin said the investors are prepared to pay no more than a few hundred thousand dollars of that amount.
Doug Thornton, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said it would be difficult to persuade Gov. Foster to pick up the rest of the tab for the state-owned facility because the state already is planning to build a downtown arena.
"I would not want to lobby for that," he said.
If the Brass group ends up cutting a deal for the Municipal Auditorium, Rodney said he would recuse himself from the negotiations. "There will be no conflict of interest, either real or imagined, under any circumstances," said Rodney, who handled the negotiations over Harrah's vacating the Municipal Auditorium, where it operated a temporary casino in 1995, and is paying to restore it for public use.
Harrah's executives have said the restoration plans could accommodate a rink.
Besides trying to find a short-term home for their team, Brass investors hope eventually to win a lease for the new downtown arena. That could be another tough sell.
Foster has said the state will sign a lease with whichever league offers the best deal.
"I do like the idea of the (regional) competition that comes with the East Coast league, but that does not represent a commitment on my part to the East Coast league," Foster said. "Whatever deal we agree to has got to be the most competitive."
The East Coast Hockey League's Southern Division includes franchises in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Biloxi, Miss., Pensacola, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala. The nearest International Hockey League competitor would be in Houston.
Typically, International Hockey League teams have paid about twice as much in rent as their East Coast Hockey League counterparts. In arenas managed by SMG, formerly Spectacor Management Group, East Coast tenants pay $2,500 to $4,000 per game in rent, while International tenants pay $10,000 to $12,000 per game, said Glenn Mon, general manager of the Superdome and vice president of stadiums and arenas for SMG.
Mon said New Orleans almost landed a team earlier this year. He said an International Hockey League franchise owner eager to move his club to the Crescent City visited in February to line up dates at the Superdome. But, after a few months of work, both sides concluded they weren't able to swing a deal.
The problem, Mon said, was clearing 45 straight days to build a rink in the Dome.
The league hasn't quit trying, however. Thornton said two prospects are still pursuing a deal in New Orleans. One involves an ownership group in Texas that hopes to bring an expansion franchise to town, and the second is a current owner who wants to relocate his team and considers New Orleans his best option.
Thornton said both prospects are committed to the market and hope to get a team here for the 1998-99 season.
Morial said he doesn't take the International Hockey League prospects seriously, partly because neither group has any local ownership. "I strongly favor local ownership," he said.
Thornton said the Texas investors are seeking local investors for their group.
Which league would do best in New Orleans? Saints owner Tom Benson, who also tried to bring an International Hockey League team to the city but gave up last year after failing to get dates at the Superdome, said he strongly favors the International Hockey League.
"I think the IHL is the premium deal for New Orleans," he said. "The ECHL is a brand-new sort of league that has expanded very rapidly and is located in smaller markets. The IHL has been around for 50 years and is in major markets. I think New Orleans is that type of city."