Fort Smith student group proposes $450 million downtown sports arena

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A group of 2014 graduates of Fort Smith's Union Christian Academy presented a dream Wednesday (July 9) that they admit is big, but believe is a possible if the community rallies together.

The students told a group gathered at the Golden Corral about their vision to build a $450 million sports arena in downtown Fort Smith that would house a community-owned franchise of the National Hockey League. Superintendent Paul Bridges of UCA told the small group of residents that the students' dream came about as part of a project in a leadership course taken during their recently-concluded senior year at the school.

"Our leadership class worked on a project for (City Administrator) Ray Gosack and it was what problems are out there that the city has that our students could work on. Well, what they worked on was the question, 'How do we get young people more involved in local government?'"

The group came to "some good conclusions," Bridges said, but out of that came the dream to build an arena and locate a hockey team in the city as a way to "radically change" Fort Smith and hopefully attract young people to the city and bring back other young adults who may have left the area to attend college.

Student Brock Smith said the goal for the group is to set the bar high and become an example that other cities follow. He said Fort Smith can do that by becoming the first city in Arkansas to host a major league sports franchise. The students proposed following the example of Green Bay, Wis., and how the city's NFL franchise is community-owned, the only in the league to be structured in such a way. They also pointed to how Green Bay is the smallest city to host a team in the NFL.

But why hockey?

Smith said while it is generally an overlooked sport, it was "more exciting" than other types of sports and "could give Fort Smith an identity." Bylaws for all major American sports leagues also specifically ban community ownership, with the exception of the NHL. (The Green Bay Packers were grandfathered in when the NFL changed ownership rules in the 1980s.)

As for how to pay for the arena, student Nico Treshnell said it would be a mix of different funding mechanisms. A one cent sales tax would account for 44% of the funding, the students estimated, with an additional 33.5% of the funding coming from asset backed securities such as bonds and another 22.5% would be secured through naming rights for the arena.

While the dream of an NHL team may be enticing for the students, it will be an uphill slide. In the case of the Green Bay Packers, the team became a part of the NFL in 1921 when the economics of professional sports was completely different than it is today.

As one of the observers of the students' presentation pointed out, the purchase price of a team itself would be a separate deal from the financing and construction of a venue to host the team, pointing specifically to NHL great Wayne Gretzky's recent efforts to bring an NHL team to Seattle at an estimated cost of $500 million. A New York Post report on his efforts noted that Gretzky was part of a previous effort by a private-equity firm that attempted to buy the parent company of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA's Toronto Raptors for $1.5 billion.

"However, the NHL rejected the group’s offer because it would have been structured as a leveraged buyout with debt levels higher than 50 percent of the franchise value — which is against NHL rules," the Post reported.

Also unknown are operating costs for a nearly half billion dollar sports arena. And while the students, who worked on the proposal for a full academic year, believe the arena could be built using the funding mix of sales tax, asset backed securities and naming rights, the bankruptcy of what was then known as the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore., shows that arenas are not always a sound business.

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The city of Fort Smith has also explored the possibility of bringing a minor league baseball team to the city before, but nothing came of it after a $160,000 fee was paid to a set of consulting groups to study the idea as part of a larger riverfront development plan.

City Director Philip Merry was on hand Wednesday to support the students and said supporters of the students' dream of securing an NHL team for the city were working to figure out next steps, including how much it would cost to do a feasibility study for the proposal, a study that itself must still find funding.

"We're going to keep encouraging all to come help and then we're going to see who will fundraise for this. … I guess over time maybe get a 501c(3) or whatnot. We're right at square one, sir."

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Comments

Hockey team

I find it humorous that they want to raise $450 million for a Hockey team and Areana. When this town commented itself and was awarded the US Marshall's Museum site. We are having difficulty raising $50 Million for a National venture that would be an economic boom for Fort Smith and downtown year round.

Committed to the museum?

A few history fanaticizers got this idea in order to try and revive the historical district from the dead and then proceeded to make it appear the town was wildly for the idea. At first I thought the Marshalls were paying for the thing themselves before the same ones here sprung the donation line on us. Next it will be a tax line IMO. Anybody know why it didn't go over good when it was in Laramie? One thing's for sure, a hockey rink would be a good thing for our local dentists.

Museum

The museum seems like a waste of time and money. How much revenue will the museum bring in. How many jobs will it create? Will it have both a direct and indirect economic impact in the region. I believe in history but I don't see it as a money maker. However, it still brings a positive to the area A arena on the other hand(very doubt it would happen because old naysayers rule the city along with reasonable tax payors) will bring revenue and tourist to the city. Hockey, Arena football, Basketball, Major Concerts an WWE (LOL) would be options. $450 million is a lot of money that may not be reachable. But we can't just dismiss these kids idea.

10 minute penalty

Well most likely an arena like that would need around million people in the area that actually had a lot of good paying jobs to support it. Seattle mean household income Approx $64k, Ft Smith $36k in 2012 and Seattle which already has two main stadiums is still not a go for a new hockey one yet. Not sure what makes Seattle tick while our clock tends to always get stuck on 1 but perhaps their local yocals aren't so bad to all try and move the dials around manually themselves. Right now some are well into the process of cleverly making people furious the city may very well later need support from on the thoroughfares to and from the museum. One can only imagine what a business owner is going through with the wrong kind of business in the wrong place on B or A street right now. (Wonder where the new bus station will be.) In normal places it's great to end up in the proximity of a new project. Not here.

Hockey Puck

I guess they are planning to use the Fort Smith taxpayers for their hockey pucks but think that plan should be put on ice until they find enough money to build the marshal's museum and not fleece the taxpayers for any more of Gosack's sweet dreams.

Ice It

They should put their Hockey facility on ice until they can figure out who and how much the city is being over billed for routine services. I just can't believe that the city boss is serious about this suggestion and if he is serious, he should be put on ice!

The Big Picture

This is about encouraging our youth to get involved in the city and it's future. No one said it was going to be built.

Big Picture Sounds Good

so lets encourage our young college accounting majors to get involved in the city and its accounting practices on legal bills. Great idea and maybe we could get future purchasing managers to set up a sealed low bid process for city and county contracts.

Oh No

A little attention to detail by serious minded students looking at city hall and county spending and contract awards would cause major problems for the good ole boys who don't like anyone asking questions. Bring on the students and let the questions flow!

Please God make this story stop

Please God make this story stop. This is the most ridiculous thing I've heard. And the fact that a city official is in board makes it even more embarrassing. They should have done a study in how to keep their school solvent instead of doing a silky study on how to blow tax money on a ridiculous idea. If baseball wasn't going to work there's no way in hell hockey will. Please make this story go away. I'm embarrassed for all involved.

Please Stop The Music

Promises and more promises of great things for Fort Smith but its just the same old failed garble coming from someone who lacks leadership qualities and is captured in the status quo by the shadow riders.

Ft Smith adults are traditionally allowed outlandish ideas

so we shouldn't come down on young people for their first one IMO.

My Thoughts

One would think that Gosack would provide better direction and advice to a group of high school students who should be thanked for their input and be given applause for their concern about the Fort Smith economy.

midsummer night

Tis a good midsummer night pipe dream. That's Mister Puck to you.