Competing hockey bids could give Mile One a new operator — and save taxpayers money

At least two groups are competing to bring hockey back to St. John's and the deal to do that might include a long-term lease to operate the Mile One facility that could save taxpayers millions.

Third-party management could mean a lower subsidy for the St. John's facility

Sheena McCrate is with St. John's Sports and Entertainment, the group that manages Mile One Centre. (cbc)

Competition to bring hockey back to St. John's may result in a long-term lease for a private company to operate the Mile One facility — a deal that could save taxpayers millions.

"We now have at least two groups interested in bringing hockey. We don't know if that will be Quebec major junior or [the] East Coast Hockey League," said Sheena McCrate, CEO of St. John's Sports and Entertainment, the group that currently manages the Mile One Centre and the St. John's Convention Centre.

We are talking about potentially a five-, 10-, maybe even a 20-year deal.- Sheena McCrate

One of the proposals is from the Atlantic Sports Enterprises group that's brought The Edge basketball team to St. John's.

The other is led by businessman Dean MacDonald and former IceCaps chief operating officer Glenn Stanford.

The basketball group, which includes U.S. businessmen Irwin Simon, Robert Sabbagh and Canadian sports promoter John Graham, recently reiterated its interest in bringing in a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team and the MacDonald-Stanford group is talking about an East Coast Hockey League team.

Irwin Simon helped bring National Basketball League of Canada team, The Edge, to St. John's. (Cape Breton Highlanders/Facebook)

Whether you care about hockey or not, a deal could be good news for St. John's taxpayers because it may result in fewer tax dollars going to the Mile One Centre.

And here's why: McCrate says the groups looking to bring a hockey team to the city are also hoping to negotiate a long-term lease to operate the arena that could reduce the city's subsidy to St. John's Sports and Entertainment.

"It's an idea that is being talked about — the idea of a third party operating Mile One," she said.

"There aren't many in Atlantic Canada but in Ontario, in London, Windsor and Hamilton, they all have third-party management agreements in place. It's not a new concept but it's certainly not something that the city of St. John's has considered before."

Mile One an asset

McCrate said there is no firm offer yet but St. John's Sports and Entertainment is keen to explore the idea.

"The fact that there are two groups interested in this demonstrates that this building is an asset and that there are people interested in coming here and operating it," she said.

"We would have to go though a very thorough request for proposals process because we are talking about potentially a five-, 10-, maybe even a 20-year deal, a long term deal to operate this facility and … we are going to do our due diligence."

McCrate said it's much too soon to say if third-party management will eliminate the need for any subsidy.

Sheena McCrate is the CEO of St. John's Sports and Entertainment - the group that operated the Mile One centre and the St. John's Convention Centre. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

"That would be part of the negotiation process. There has been some discussion about there being no subsidy and there has been some discussion about the subsidy being reduced but to say what will happen here is premature. We will have to see what what the group wants to do in this building."

The city has budgeted a $2.67 million subsidy for St. John's Sports and Entertainment in 2018, for both Mile One and the convention centre.

Roughly $1.18 million of that is for Mile One's operating costs —  and about $500,000 is for capital costs.

Opportunity to make money

McCrate says operating the building would give a third party more opportunity to make money.

"It gives them more control over how the building is run. It gives them opportunities to control revenue through the box office and food and beverage, and corporate partners who support us. So it would give them control over that revenue line," said McCrate.

"They would be in the driver's seat."

To be honest, [Danny Williams] has zero interest in ever having to deal with Mile One management again.- Elizabeth Williams

Right now Atlantic Sports Enterprises has an advantage over the group led by MacDonald and Stanford.

Its legal agreement to bring basketball to St. John's included a clause that gives it 30 days to make a counter offer when another group expresses interest in bringing a hockey team to Mile One. That clause was triggered in early December. That exclusivity clause remains in place until March 2019.

Former St. John's IceCaps executive Glenn Stanford is part of a group hoping to bring an east coast hockey league team to St. John's. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Sources tell CBC that members of Atlantic Sports Enterprises were taken by surprise when they learned that Stanford, who had been working as a consultant with them, was part of a competing offer to return hockey to St. John's.

Danny Williams not involved

There have been rumours that former premier Danny Williams is working with the MacDonald-Stanford group but a spokesperson for Williams vigorously denies that.

"Danny has absolutely no involvement whatsoever with any effort to bring hockey back to St. John's. To be honest, he has zero interest in ever having to deal with Mile One management again," wrote Elizabeth Williams in an emailed statement.

Mile One employs about 250 people. More than 200 of them are hired part-time for events. McCrate doesn't expect that a change in management will mean much to them.

She is optimistic hockey will return to Mile One.

"There is a desire for this building to have two teams. It's not uncommon. In Halifax, Cape Breton, Moncton, they all operate a hockey team and a basketball team so I don't see why St. John's can't do the same."