TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson and Brandon Wheat Kings owner and general manager Kelly McCrimmon shake hands during a press conference on Wednesday announcing a new lease agreement between the team and the facility.
It will cost the Brandon Wheat Kings more to call Westman Place home, but team owner Kelly McCrimmon said it was worth it to sign a new five-year lease on Wednesday.
"As owner of the Wheat Kings, I run a business, plain and simple," McCrimmon said as he endorsed the deal that replaces a 15-year lease set to expire on May 31.
"It just happens that this business is a hockey team. As we went through negotiations, I have a responsibility to ownership to do a good lease, but I also have a responsibility to the city and our fans to reach an agreement. We are a major part of the fabric of this city."
While specific financial details were not released, both McCrimmon and Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson confirmed the team’s rent will increase to four times what had been paid under the expiring lease.
In exchange, the team received a guarantee there would be no added facility fees charged to its fans. Ticketmaster fees have been frozen for five years and there will be no parking fees during Wheat Kings games for the duration of the new lease.
"We felt strongly that these additional fees would not work for our fan base, so in return, we absorbed those costs into our business," McCrimmon said.
The Wheat Kings secured another key concession, through a rent adjustment when they have to vacate Westman Place during the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair. Thomson confirmed that it compensates the team for costs incurred while playing games elsewhere during the fair.
"It was a change in the rental agreement," Thomson said.
"We have attempted to accommodate the financial impact they experience during that event."
The club will also increase its share of concession sales revenue during Wheat Kings games from the 6.5 per cent in the existing deal
"That’s one area where we did see an improvement, recognizing the impact we have had on the Keystone Centre concessions with the pricing strategy we have used (on ticket sales)," McCrimmon said.
"Those sales have spiked considerably as a function of our numbers increasing in the building. That’s one area where we will share to a greater level, not significantly more, but marginally more than we had in the past."
Aside to securing the right to play at Westman Place, the team has obtained the ability to rent 1,500 square feet to 1,600 square feet more space from the Keystone Centre to enhance its office space and player dressing room and training facilities. Thomson said the team will be taking over a portion of the Pioneer Room as part of the expansion and that the team will pay for all of the construction costs required to make this happen.
Reaction to the deal, announced before a crowd of approximately 35 people, was primarily positive.
"We were quite conflicted because one objective is to strengthen the bottom line as much as we can, while the other is to recognize that the Wheat Kings are a beloved member of the community and if we pushed too hard, they have other options in other communities," Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said. "We have a very good agreement for the Keystone Centre, and I think Kelly is happy with the deal too."
A pledge was made to improve Westman Place to ensure it meets the standards set by the Western Hockey League. That pledge, which McCrimmon characterized as an "implicit good faith understanding," includes a plan to improve the seats in the arena, better lighting in the arena as well as improving the player facilities offered by the team.
"In the 15 years of the lease just expiring, there were basically no improvements in the main arena, with the exception of the (2010) Memorial Cup, a process spearheaded by our organization," McCrimmon said. "As a result, we have fallen behind WHL standards in arena lighting, sound and seating. It’s imperative these areas get addressed, and through the negotiation process, there’s a shared understanding of the importance of this."
How that understanding turns into action depends on the Keystone Centre’s leadership group and the provincial government’s willingness to help fund the upgrades. Decter Hirst threw out a $10-million figure when describing the desired capital upgrades, which includes roof repairs.
"It would be $5 million to (the city) because we have a funding partner," Decter Hirst said. "We have known about this need and the priority of what needs to happen for at least a year. Until we can get both partners to the table, nothing is happening."
Decter Hirst said not all of the funding partners have been willing to sign on to help fund the upgrades, but read that similar facilities in Winnipeg may get funding for their projects.
"I can only presume that they don’t understand how critical it is for the Keystone Centre to continue to drive the western Manitoba economy because that roof has leaked for years," Decter Hirst said. "We have got to get it fixed. We have one room that has been closed for years, another room that has got a bucket brigade that’s deployed when the skies cloud over."
When asked how she hoped to get the provincial government’s attention, Decter Hirst’s message was blunt.
"We are going to become increasingly frustrated and loud," she said. "That’s not the relationship I prefer to have because I believe the Keystone Centre is well recognized for being an economic engine. However, if we need to be loud to be heard, then we’ll be loud to be heard."
While a longer-term goal, Decter Hirst said the seating area upgrades could eventually involve making the first three rows at ice level "removable" or retractable to give some events more flexibility.
Thomson said the new lease agreement should give the facility a much-needed revenue boost it can reinvest into capital upgrades and repairs.
It also helps to meet a mandate to become more self-sufficient with balanced books, when combined to increasing revenue from concerts and other events.
McCrimmon said the team has an economic impact of between $12 million and $14 million each year.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 24, 2012