The Occidental Building at the Niagara Falls NY Border

The Coyote In The Room

I have resisted writing this article for some time now, as I wanted to make sure that everything in it supported my opinion on the matter with facts.  It has been a wild ride watching this franchise be jerked around over the past three years, and without a doubt the fans of this team deserve far better.  The worst thing that can happen to a fan of any sports franchise is to see a team be relocated, and it is understandable that people would be hesitant to get emotionally involved in a team that may not be around for very long.  The best way I could share my opinion is in the form of a story from childhood that shares the danger of desperation.

I grew up in a town in western New York just outside of the city of Niagara Falls.  Anybody that has seen the American side of the falls would remember, as it could best be summed up as a black eye on a supermodel.  The beauty and majesty of the natural wonder are shaded over by what amounts to an abandoned factory town that has not, and will not, accept the realities of the changes in the world.  The city and region have been trying for years to find some way to make themselves relevant, and more often than not the measures taken have failed.  One particular chapter in the history of the city demonstrates that desperation.

When driving to the Rainbow Bridge right before crossing into Canada, a beautiful glass structure sits about a thousand feet from the edge of the gorge.  The building was known as the Occidental Chemical building, more commonly referred to as the Oxy building, and for years it housed the chemical giant.  For those unfamiliar, Occidental was the parent company of Hooker Chemical which had stored it’s waste in the site that became famous as Love Canal.  The building is truly beautiful, even for an office building.  As the economy in western New York declined through the nineties, many companies left the area including Occidental.

The building sat empty for years, as did many others.  The longer they sat empty, the more desperate local leaders became to find some form of life in the former blue collar city.  All at once came a bold proclamation that a developer had purchased the rights to develop the site of the former building, and it would become a giant underground aquarium to be known as Aquafalls.  There were levels of excitement filled with feelings of pessimism, as a lot of local money was to be invested in this vision.

Bulldozers arrived, construction began, a huge hole was carved into the structure of the building, hope was high.  The first year went by, and then the second, and when driving by the site things began to come into focus.  There was large machinery, but nobody working with it.  Then the third year went by.  The signs on the outside of the fence stated “coming in 2000″, but the year had come and gone with no work even being done.  The hole was started in 1999, and finally in 2003 the project was declared a failure.  The companies involved received millions of local incentives for development, and had apparently invested very little, and they were gone.  The hole sat empty for six more years before it was finally purchased and restored as a local shopping center.

The lesson from the above story is to be careful when times are desperate who you invest your faith and money in.  If you have an opinion over what is going on with the Phoenix Coyotes, hopefully you have based it on the documents presented by the city council and not emotional attachment.  The city is planning on writing a large check to a man that is not even spending his own money to invest in a business that has bleed money from the moment it arrived.  The organization playing sorcerer here has a proven track record of failing to properly investigate the people it does business with (John Spano was sold the NY Islanders until it was established that he had no money at all, William “Boots” Del Baggio was sold about a quarter of the Nashville Predators after being hand picked by the NHL, he is now serving a 97 month term after it was established that he had no money either).  After reading the 68 pages of an arena management agreement, it becomes more than clear that the only risk being taken is by the city itself.

When times get desperate is when the snake oil salesmen appear, ready to take everything not bolted down when you’re not looking.  If the Phoenix Coyotes were such a great investment, Mr Jamison would surely be willing to front losses rather than expect taxpayers to do so at the expense of city employees and services.  If the NHL felt so strongly about the viability of the market, they would not have demanded twenty five million a year for two years all while promising that a legitimate owner would be found.  If they had this faith, why would they accept a payment.  The answer can easily be found when looking at what they did when under similar circumstances.  When each of the Minnesota North Stars and Hartford Whalers did not get the new buildings the NHL owners wanted, they left.  Same in Quebec City and Winnipeg.  The fact is, Glendale is the first municipality to buckle under each time the NHL makes threats, and bite on each promise they are hand fed.

If not for the fifty million forked over to spread amongst themselves, they would be gone already.  They are preying and feeding on the desperation of a local government in the worst possible way, and what they have now effectively done is make the grand gesture “if you don’t want to support the Coyotes through ticket sales/merchandise, we will just come to your house and take the money for ourselves”,  All with the same class and dignity of a bank robber.  The city drew assumptions from this lease agreement that only looks at the most favorable scenario, ie selling their building out 41 times a year, and earning money through playoff games.  They have no plan to pay for this other than raising taxes on each and every other business, all in the name of saving one.

The truth is that there is a plan available that the city could take that would not only get them out of their deficit, but do so for little if any money at all.  The city council has been misguided in their attempts to keep this team, but they are not bad people.  Use the Goldwater group as an ally and not an enemy.  Use the courts to take back the fifty million that the NHL was paid, which would more than offset the budget difficulties for a year or two until the building situation could be figured out, and without the prospect of paying a man to keep a losing proposition in town any longer.  Jim Balsillie offered $212.5 million dollars to purchase the franchise in 2009, at which point the NHL stated in court that they could get more in return.  Go after the NHL for damages.  I want nothing more than justice for this city, as I lived through crafty swindlers that prey on the hopes and fears of local government.

As for relocation, it appears little more at this time than a foregone conclusion.  I don’t want to see it move, just like I didn’t want to see Hartford, Winnipeg, Quebec, or Minnesota move.  I genuinely feel bad still for fans of the Atlanta Thrashers that lost their team, same for the Atlanta Flames.  The iron clad lease that the city sewed up last week as they stated will not prevent this either, as the NHL has the authority still to dissolve a franchise, at that point the city recovery fee would be a mute point.  It also would not survive a bankruptcy court, which was confirmed to me earlier today.

And in closing, a word of advice to Mrs. Joyce Clark of the city council:  You are a public official, act like one.  Getting goaded into condescending comments with out of towners and international guests does not come across as strong, rather ignorant.  The Canadians in the audience that you decided to spar with may not have been to your liking, but to insult them in the name of a hockey team you can’t afford to lose or keep?  More than half of the players on that team are of Canadian Descent.  You also have your building invaded a dozen times a year with fans travelling south, not to mention the snowbirds that attend.  Show some class.

This will be the last I write about this as this has quite frankly taken up more of my time than I care for.  My concern for the residents of this town is genuine, as I have lived through it.  The scam I spoke of above was one of many “take the money and run” schemes that left my hometown in a state of disarray.  I was displaced, as was my sister and most of the people I grew up with.  If this deal does go forward for you, I sincerely hope and pray it ends better than I suspect it will.

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