An all-out community drive under the strictest of deadlines is under way to transform the Pickelner Arena on the YMCA grounds into a multi-sport, all-purpose indoor facility that could attract professional, college and high school hockey teams, provide a place for ice sports to thrive and become a venue for musical concerts and special events.
Mayor Gabriel J. Campana on Wednesday night held an informational session at the Sechler Room in City Hall, bringing together the principal figures who are trying to make the estimated $3 million project a reality.
CRAIG S. McKIBBEN JR./Sun-Gazette
Marilyn Smith, foreground right, a figure skating and ice hockey enthusiast who has wanted to see an ice rink in Williamsport for many years, talks Wednesday about the need to raise funds quickly for a chance to get Pickelner Arena converted into a combined ice rink/community arena.
Matthew Hufnagel, a promoter and vice president of JAC Management, who has helped to bring major events to First Arena at Elmira, N.Y.;
Chris Firriolo, head coach of the New Jersey Outlaws, a professional hockey team that plays in a minor league setting and is the single-A affiliate of the Trenton Titans, which is the double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, of the National Hockey League;
Don Kirnan, commissioner of the Federal Hockey League, Dewitt, N.Y., and
Peter Rich, who has financial expertise in developing similar arenas.
A local non-profit organization that is calling itself the Williamsport Ice Arena and Event Center Group also is interested in bringing the arena into existence. It is working with Kirnan, who is overseeing the non-profit organization at its New York offices.
The organization also has a local post office address and has begun soliciting funds trying to raise a goal of $500,000 in a capital fundraising campaign with a short deadline of July.
"The challenge is it costs a lot to operate," Rich said. "Our group would finance part of it, but the community needs to fund about one-sixth of the cost."
Rich said he considered the public financial contribution to be a sizable gap, but said the opportunity exists for it to work between a combination of existing bank financing, tax credits and private donations.
"Most of the time, these arenas can become a boondoggle for cities," Rich said.
But, he said, with the business model of a developer close to signing a deal to buy an existing shell of a property and development costs less than what it would be to construct an arena from the ground up, the project is achievable.
Dr. Vincent Matteo, CEO and president of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, and Jason Fink, executive vice president of the chamber, support and believe in the project, Campana said.
As Rich explained, the other piece of the puzzle is an anonymous donor has reached a verbal agreement with the YMCA to purchase the property.
"We're real close, but the financial packaging is the missing link," Campana said.
"We're working hard as a collective group between the mayor, an unnamed developer in town and our organization to get the Williamsport Ice Arena and Event Center up and running - not just for our use, but one that benefits the city and region," Firriolo said.
Campana refused to name the developer.
The team that plays in Wayne, N.J., wants to relocate here, Firriolo said.
"We really need help from the public and support of the community. It's been a great response so far," he said. "A lot of people have stepped forward, and a small portion have put their necks on the line."
When asked about the hockey portion of the project, Firriolo said, "It's not a question if this is going to happen, it is a whether it will happen in 2012 or 2013. If one or two things fall into place, we could see professional hockey played this year."
The Outlaws would become the Williamsport Outlaws. In its first year in the league, the Outlaws captured the 2012 Commissioners' Cup Championship.
Team owner and CEO Kristin Rooney, an attorney from Phoenix, Ariz., who grew up with her parents in Ohio, fell in love with the city, Firriolo said.
"So did I," he added. "We're looking for a perfect venue to hold an evening of family-affordable entertainment."
When asked why the move from Wayne, Firriolo was businesslike in his response.
"We achieved most of our goals, but at end of day, it's a business," he said. "Competition near New York City for ice sports is tremendous. There's so much competition near Wayne for the dollar, including the New Jersey Devils, which lost to the Los Angeles Kings, which just won the Stanley Cup, and the New York Rangers.
"As we grow, we're looking for a facility which has more seating and a market that would work for minor league hockey."
The Outlaws will be a prominent pillar in the community, Firriolo said. As an organization, the hockey team will use the facility about 10 percent of the time and will support other minor league sport teams such as the Williamsport Crosscutters, a single-A baseball team affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Other times, the arena can be used to develop youth hockey leagues, figure skating competitions and practice, and public skating. After the ice season is over, it can support trade shows, concerts, graduations, wrestling and boxing events, and concerts that normally would not play or perform at the Community Arts Center.
"It can be a mini-convention center and add additional value to the city," Firriolo said.
Hufnagel said it is possible to bring events such as Disney on Ice and Harlem Globetrotters, boxing and wrestling matches, and trade shows.
"We would be a complement to the Community Arts Center, not competition," he said. "The CAC offers some events that are suitable for its theater while the arena, which could seat up to 3,500 people, could feature a wide variety of acts."
Kirnan stressed how it will be the local groups and citizens of the city and region who operate the facility.
"To pay the bills and bring this in at no cost to the city, the people of Williamsport will run the show," he said.