Star-Gazette Features a Conversation with First Arena Owners Freeman and Cook

Posted December 5, 2013

A Conversation With: New First Arena owners look to add more offerings
By Ray Finger, The Star-Gazette, 11/30/13

Elmira Downtown Arena, the company controlled by Michigan businessman Mostafa Afr, had managed First Arena in Elmira under an agreement with arena owner Southern Tier Economic Development Inc. until local businessmen Tom Freeman and Nate Cook took over the arena after an agreement was negotiated in February in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Rochester.

Freeman and Cook subsequently acquired the Elmira Jackals hockey team from the Afr family when a deal was closed in April. Freeman promised at the time that the original vision for the arena as being more than just a hockey rink would be fulfilled.

The Star-Gazette recently had a conversation with Freeman and Cook to find out how those efforts are going.

What did you expect when you bought First Arena and the Jackals?

Freeman: “We always had a vision of what the team and the facility should be in downtown Elmira. That history goes back more than a decade. I think over the past years, much of that vision was not fulfilled. I think as a community, we felt somebody had to do something. I know that I was involved in the STED board for years, and I think that the general feeling was that at some point, somebody had to do something. The mortgage hadn’t been paid in years. There were just a number of operational issues going on with the arena. Just being involved in the community, we felt that we had to do something. The ‘something’ involved stepping in and buying the mortgage from Key Bank, going through that painful process of a foreclosure to take possession of the facility. And in that bankruptcy process that subsequently followed the foreclosure proceedings, we struggled a year through that ... The settlement was reached finally last spring, and coinciding with that, we purchased the team as well and settled all the claims and took possession of the facility. So, we’ve been up and running these last six months, and it’s been challenging, but it’s rewarding, I think, because we’re helping deliver on the promise for Elmira.”

Given the challenge in acquiring the arena and the team, why did you do it?

Freeman: “I think it’s twofold. We saw a business purpose for it, but we also saw a community purpose for it as well. My community involvement goes back to the Coach USA days, when we did the naming rights for the facility. It was important to Elmira. It was important to the community. In all fairness, we’re businessmen as well, and we saw an opportunity to do a turnaround with the business, and we thought it was a challenge we’d like to take on. … I’d been on the STED board a number of years — actually, the entire 10-year time — and just kind of saw how the arena was managed, and saw that the vision wasn’t being fulfilled. We saw the facility in a continuous state of disrepair. We saw that the mortgage had not been paid on the arena for a number of years. Instead of just sitting around and just wringing our hands — ‘What are we going to do about this? What’s the community going to do about it?’ — we actually stepped up and said, ‘Well, I have a plan, and the plan is to approach Key Bank, buy the mortgage and go through with the foreclosure to take the facility, where a payment had not been made for a number of years.’ We went through that process. We had the subsequent bankruptcy of the former owners, and that process lasted about a year. It culminated with an ultimate settlement where they turned over the facility to us, and we purchased the team. That brought us to April, which was about six months ago. We’ve been in this constant state of repairing the building these last six months. It seems like everything from the ice rink to the ice machines — everything you sort of touched was in a state of disrepair. It’s been a constant fix-up, paint-up, cleanup, replacement mode all summer, just getting the facility ready for this fall season. We’ve got a lot of work to do yet, but we’re on track, and we’re excited about the season.”

Talk a bit about your vision for First Arena. What do you hope to accomplish?

Cook: “Part of the vision for this facility, when it was first contemplated and then constructed, was that there’d be a lot of different events going on, almost like a civic center. It was going to bring professional hockey to the community, which would sort of be a fundamental change for the community, but also there’d be a lot of events going on that would drive traffic and tourism to downtown. One of the things we’ve tried to do since we’ve taken over is, obviously, the hockey team; that whole program will grow, but we want to have a lot more events at the arena throughout the year. So instead of just having 40 or 50 nights of entertainment, we’d like to see closer to 75 to 100 nights of entertainment. The other thing that we’ve done is to put in the Splitrock Brewing Co. brew pub down on Main Street, which will open for lunch and dinner on a daily basis, and hopefully, that will also generate a lot more foot traffic and interest in what’s going on in downtown Elmira.”

What surprises did you encounter in this whole venture?

Freeman: “We had, more or less, a five-year plan for how we were going to address the maintenance concerns at the arena, because as I had mentioned, there was everything from the ice plant that makes the ice out on the rink to the ice machines. We had inherited a facility that, while it was a new facility a decade or so ago, it had not seen a lot of routine or preventative maintenance over the years. So our business plan was developed, a five-year plan of replacement for much of the major components of that. That five-year plan had a budget, and we went into this eyes wide open, knowing that there were a lot of issues at the arena that needed to be addressed. I think what probably surprised and disappointed a little bit that was as we got into some of the fixes this summer, we found that while our five-year budget was an accurate budget over what it was going to take to replace it, we ended up spending two-thirds of that five-year budget in five months. It was just a case of everything that we touched, you had to fix it. It just couldn’t wait another year. It couldn’t wait another season. We had to get in and do it now. So from that standpoint, it’s been a little bit painful, quite honestly, just to make some of these investments. That’s just over seven figures, at this point, so it’s multiple millions of dollars that we’ve done this summer. But it was needed, and I think it positions us well for going forward, certainly, into the future. There are just a number of wonderful things going on in arenas throughout the country, in terms of the video scoreboards and the video display boards and the new type of lighting that you can bring in, the LED lighting, energy enhancements with ice plants. As we upgrade the ice plant in future years, we’d like to get more energy-efficient because, certainly, utilities were a big part of the cost at the arena. So there are a lot of things still on our plate for the coming years to tackle. I think that the public will notice some of those changes more than they’ve noticed the enhancements to the behind-the-scenes stuff. I think everybody has sort of realized we’ve painted the building and done a lot of cosmetic and facade work. In the interior, of course, we’ve painted and cleaned up and fixed up. But an awful lot of the things are kind of behind the scenes that nobody really knew were broken and were in a state of disrepair that have now been repaired.”

Is there anything you would like to add that the public should know?

Freeman: “A community this size, to have a professional sport of any type, is a luxury, something that Elmira’s really gifted with. A lot of communities this size don’t have a professional sports team. Quite honestly, (the Elmira Jackals hockey team) makes the news every day in USA Today. That’s probably the only business in Elmira that is national news on a daily basis. Granted, it’s just in the standings, but it’s a fact that it is professional. The ECHL is a nationwide league, and these guys are going places. This is a league where the players you see today — some of them, certainly — will be playing in the NHL in another season or two, or perhaps this season. So it is a big thing. I think sometimes we kind of lose sight of that, that it is such a wonderful asset to have a professional sports team in your community and to have a facility like this. You know, this was and is a first-class facility for a community this size. It’s a nice-looking building. It’s well-suited for the community, and it’s really a public asset. It’s hard for communities to go out and get new arenas and professional sports teams, and here we are with Elmira that has this wonderful asset. We really need the community to know — and much of the business community has supported us over here and worked with us and become sponsors — but the public needs to know that it’s exciting to come out to these games. There’s a lot of action on it, and it’s great entertainment for the value.”

Cook: “At the end of the day, what we really have to offer to the public is this entertainment option that would not exist but for the facility and for the team. One of the neat parts of having a professional team in town is that it does generate a lot of excitement. There are certainly super-fans that follow every stat and every player and every movement, that come to every game. We love them. We couldn’t say enough about them. But there are also folks that come with their friends just to take part in the entertainment experience. One of the things that we really want to try to do going forward is to enhance that experience so that people really do feel that they’re getting a great return and getting a great bang for their buck. At the end of the day, people coming together to share in a great entertainment experience is what enhances the entertainment lifeblood of everybody in town. Over time, as people sort of get used to new experiences as they go to the arena, they’ll forget about the past and look to the future.”

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