Hockey team wants arena offer by August 1

Economy, Business and FinancePoliticsFinanceLehigh CountyAllentownBethlehem (Northampton, Pennsylvania)Entertainment

The new owners of the Philadelphia Phantoms minor league hockey team visited Allentown on Thursday to deliver a cordial ultimatum to the area's political leaders.

It went something like this: Secure adequate public financing and pick a site for a multipurpose hockey arena by Aug. 1, or we'll have to explore other options.

"We are excited about the opportunity here in the Lehigh Valley. This is more than just an arena. It also means jobs, economic development and more entertainment," said Jim Brooks, co-owner of the Pittsburgh-based Brooks Group, which announced its purchase of the Phantoms from Comcast-Spectator last week.

The statements came during a news conference at the America on Wheels museum, where the owners expressed their strong preference for having the team play in the Valley.

The proposed 8,000-seat facility would host concerts, Disney ice shows, graduations, trade shows and other events, Brooks said. A consultant to the company said he has a commitment from Billy Joel to play the first show at the venue.

Brooks would not say what it would cost to build the arena for the Phantoms, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, but noted that a Hershey arena cost $75 million in 2001. He said his company is willing to commit roughly 20 percent of the financing.

"We are not looking for a handout, but we are looking for a hand," said Tom Rooney, president of the Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group, the consultant.

He said the Phantoms would like to play in Pennsylvania and noted the Aug. 1 deadline for Valley officials to come up with a proposal.

The race to secure funding and designate a location before the deadline might trigger a bidding war similar to the public spats over where to put the Sands casino, which wound up in Bethlehem, and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball stadium, which wound up in Allentown.

"It belongs in Allentown," Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said of the arena. "We are the largest municipality in the county, and I am going to fight hard to ensure it's here."

Pawlowski's preferred location is along the Lehigh River between the America on Wheels museum and the Tilghman Street Bridge. City leaders have long held out hope of developing the parcel.

But the mayor said another possible location would be near the IronPigs stadium on the city's east side. He did not provide specifics.

"I have preferences, but I would not quibble over them," Pawlowski said.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said the area around the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem would be a perfect fit for the facility, largely because it could handle the additional traffic and already has some of the infrastructure in place.

"I think it's a perfect location, and I think the Stabler Arena has proven that Bethlehem is good at attracting people to events," Callahan said.

He expects some financial support from Northampton County, while Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham has made it clear that Lehigh County's support of the IronPigs stadium has hampered his ability to help with this hockey project.

Both Callahan and Pawlowski played down the competition, but it became apparent when Pawlowski spotted Callahan talking to one of the owners.

"He's already got a casino," Pawlowski blurted, smiling.

Thursday's event was attended by state and federal lawmakers who represent the area or by members of their staffs.

Separate requests for state money for the project already are on a state capital budget wish list: $40 million for Lehigh County and $30 million for Northampton County.

These appropriations would need the approval of the state's legislative caucuses, as well as the governor, at a time of red ink in Harrisburg.

"We are going to have to be unified and fight for those dollars," said state Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh, who sponsored the Lehigh County request. "But this project is too important to lose."

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