Abbotsford taxpayers fork over $1.76 million to AHL Heat
It’s make-it-or-break-it time for the Abbotsford Heat.
On Wednesday, the City of Abbotsford announced a $1.76-million subsidy to make up for poor attendance at the Calgary Flames farm team’s games over the 2011-12 season.
It’s the third year the city has been forced to help out the Heat as part of a 10-year contract guaranteeing the team break-even revenue of $5.7 million to play out of the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC).
Since the contract began, Abbotsford has paid the team, which is owned by the Calgary Flames, a total of $3.58 million, including $1.3 million in 2010-11 and $450,000 in its first year.
Opponents of the contract, as well as those who can’t see past the team’s affiliation with the Flames, have been vocal since the start, questioning a deal where taxpayers are on the hook for a hockey team’s financial troubles.
Now, some of the team’s strongest supporters are also beginning to question the situation.
“This year is probably the litmus test,” investor Lane Sweeting told The Province on Thursday.
“If we can’t make strong progress this year with the NHL lockout helping us, then the city and the team will have to get together and seriously ask if this is working.”
Sweeting, who is part of a group of local businessmen who operate the team on behalf of the Flames, said there are a number of reasons attendance was poor last year.
The AHL is a relatively new league in the West, he said, and home games are played back-to-back — usually on Friday and Saturday nights — against the same team, making it difficult for fans to attend both.
Sweeting admitted the Flames affiliation doesn’t help, either.
“We know that if attendance doesn’t grow this year, we need to go back to the table. So far this is not working for the taxpayer, and that’s not fair,” he said.
City manager Frank Pizzuto said the city is “concerned” about the situation, especially in light of the increasing size of the shortfall.
“We did expect improvement.”
But the city manager said the city expects to honour the 10-year contract, which expires in June 2019. Breaking the contract has never been discussed, Pizzuto added.
Both Sweeting and Pizzuto pointed to the hiring of Ryan Walters as team president and the NHL lockout as factors that could make this the team’s breakout year.
After four games, including two against the Vancouver Canucks farm team from Chicago, the Heat attendance numbers are well above the break-even mark.
Many will be watching to see if that lasts, as about half the crowd at the last two games came to cheer for the other team. The Edmonton Oilers’ farm team will be in Abbotsford next week, bringing many of the NHL’s top draft picks.
But critic Lynn Perrin said the quality of the hockey is irrelevant.
“Public taxes should not be going to a private hockey team,” she said, pointing to programs and improvements the city has been unable to continue because of a lack of funds.
“We had a community pool that had to shut down because the city couldn’t find $1 million to repair it.”
Perrin feels it’s very simple why the team has been struggling to fill seats.
“People in Abbotsford are Canucks fans, and you’ve got their number one rival’s farm team playing here,” she said.