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Raleigh pinpointed for possible NHL franchise

Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer recently announced that his city is interested in acquiring a National Hockey League franchise.

The mayor's mid-September announcement follows the recently released plans of the NHL to land two new expansion teams. If a Raleigh franchise is obtained, the city hopes to place the NHL team in the planned entertainment and sports arena in Raleigh, which is scheduled to open in 1999.

Last August, representatives from the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce-including Chamber President Harvey Schmitt; Fetzer; Carl Moore, chair of the Centennial Authority's professional sports committee; and other members of the Authority-met with NHL officials to discuss the opportunity of an NHL team being housed in the new arena. The Centennial Authority is a group charged by the North Carolina General Assembly to design, finance and build the new arena.

The Raleigh contingent presented NHL officials with the advantages of a team in the Raleigh area. Moore added that Raleigh's large television market, steady employment and increasing metropolitan population should make the area attractive to the NHL. He said he hopes the presence of local colleges and universities will lead NHL commissioners to view Raleigh as a "sports-minded area."

Other cities who have submitted a bid for an NHL expansion team include Houston, Nashville and Oklahoma City, said Adam Schwartz, spokesperson for the NHL. Raleigh's status in the 1990 census as the city with the largest disposable income without a major league franchise helped the Triangle compete with the other cities who are bidding, Moore said. He also said he was pleased with the results of last August's meeting.

"We've been in a regular dialogue with the NHL," Schmitt said, adding that the city is working to acquire potential investors to cover the high costs of starting and maintaining a NHL team, such as the franchise application fee of $100,000. "The investors would negotiate a potential lease and they would submit the bid to the NHL."

Schwartz said the fee to join the league if the franchise is awarded is $50 million. That amount is in addition to the $30 million required to maintain the team and to put them on the ice, Schmitt said. Once they identify the appropriate funds, the investors will negotiate a lease with the Centennial Authority and, in turn, the investors will present their bid to the NHL.

Although the league would not comment on the date of a final decision, Schmitt said he is under the impression that the NHL will award at least one franchise by mid-December. This deadline is continuous and if the investors are unable to bid for a team by mid-December, he said they hope to bid next year.

While Schmitt said he acknowledged that North Carolina has not traditionally been characterized as a hockey-oriented state, he does not foresee problems in local support for a team. He pointed to hockey's recent success in other non-traditional markets such as Miami and Tampa. The success of the Raleigh Icecaps, a local minor league hockey team, shows that there is a local fan base for the sport, he said. Moore said increasing numbers of northerners moving to the Raleigh area with an interest in hockey could draw additional support for a new team.

The NHL team would occupy the arena for approximately 45 of the 200 nights the arena would be used, Schmitt said. The sports committee of the Centennial Authority is also looking at other tenants for the arena, Moore said. Even without an NHL team, the Committee anticipates a minor league hockey team and has been in correspondence with the Continental Indoor Soccer League and the Arena Football League, he said. The arena would also be used as a location for concerts, circuses, ice shows, indoor tennis, and for home basketball games for North Carolina State University. The arena is also scheduled to be used during the 1999 Special Olympics in Raleigh.

The arena has been in design since July 1988 when the North Carolina General Assembly approved $1.5 million to be matched by N.C. State to build the new arena. The arena was originally proposed as a new basketball stadium for N.C. State with other tenants who would help make up the operating costs. Although there has been minimal progress since this allocation of funds, ground-breaking took place three years ago and a pit has been dug in the location of the new arena.

The Authority was established in July 1995 and took over the project from that point, eliminating N.C. State as a controller of the property. Beginning this January, the Authority will be taking bids from contractors.

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