BELLEVILLE – The owner of the Belleville Bulls is warning that if talks about modernizing the Yardmen Arena remain on the back burner, he may be forced to look at moving the team.
Speaking to QNet News from his home in Uxbridge, Ont., Gord Simmonds said the city needs to make the subject of modernizing the Yardmen, which hosts the Ontario Hockey League Bulls, a high priority before it’s too late.
The Bulls’ current contract with the city runs until 2015, with an option to extend it to 2017. But if the team wants to look long-term in Belleville, it needs to see a change in the arena, Simmonds said.
“We’ve been patient, but we have always said that (the Yardmen) needs to be viable. But we are getting nearer and nearer to the place that it’s not really viable. So there needs to be a freshness that comes into that part of the equation.”
But city Councillor Jack Miller says council has more important things to worry about at the moment.
“Other projects right now have priority. We are dealing with (the need for) a new police station; we are dealing with (construction of) a new firehall; we are looking at significant upgrades on our infrastructure. Those things have to be dealt with now. We are hoping that within the next couple of years that the issue of the Yardman Arena will then start coming back to the forefront once we have these things out of the way,” Miller said.
Once city council does tackle the issue, it will still depend on the financial position of the city at that time, he said.
But Simmonds said he always thought that the Yardman project was one of the city’s biggest priorities.
“From my point of view, (Miller’s comments are) kind of the first I have heard that it’s not a priority. They’ve always suggested that modernizing the arena was rising as a priority on their list. I would have to think in their strategic view it’s still a priority.”
The message from the Bulls as to what they need to move forward and stay in Belleville is simple, he said.
“From the Bulls’ point of view, we’ve made it clear that us playing in a more modern facility is a prerequisite to keeping the team in Belleville. I guess it really depends at what point the city continuing to (defer) that as a priority … will match up with my partners and my willingness to stay in a marketplace where we don’t have an appropriate facility.”
The Cannifton Road arena is almost 40 years old. Seating, access and ease of mobility inside it are the biggest issues, Simmonds said. Fans complain that the seats are uncomfortable, and some seats have a poor view of the action, he said. The arena is hard to get into from the outside, and once it gets busy, it’s hard to manoeuvre inside, he added.
He has heard rumours that the public thinks the team wants a bigger facility, but he wants to put those rumours to bed, he said.
“A lot of people think we need to have a big expensive facility (like) they have in Oshawa and Kingston, but it’s really about a more modern sports and entertainment facility that makes it easier to stage events, whether they are OHL hockey games, or whether they are concerts.”
Looking forward to that goal, Miller said there needs to be a commitment from the city before the contract nears its end.
“By 2017, there is going to have to be some commitment toward an upgraded facility or a new facility, whichever way the council decides to go. If there is nothing practical, or nothing affordable, then I would suggest the future of the team would certainly come into question.”
As the contract winds down, he’s going to feel pressure from other cities hungry for an OHL team, Simmonds said.
“There’s a lot of interest from other communities for us to move the team. If other communities realize that Belleville is dithering around and not taking leadership and not being decisive on this matter, then we’re going to be under increased pressure from other communities.”
It’s up to the city to decide the team’s fate, he said.
“We do have a contract, it’s progressing through the time period, and we have some options to extend it. But as we go deeper, if the leadership of the city and the community, if they’re weak-kneed on what has to be done to put a proper facility in and come support our team, then that’s their decision.”
As for now, Simmonds said that he and the Bulls are focused on being in Belleville.
“We’ve made a commitment to the city of Belleville. We have no personal reasons for wanting our franchise to be somewhere else. They are called the Belleville Bulls for a reason. I think that it’s a community that can support this level of hockey.”