Wild lockout blocks flow of hockey dollars

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2012 - 8:07 AM

St. Paul took a hit to the tune of $60 million during the last NHL lockout -- not to mention the buzz downtown on game days.

With the Minnesota Wild's season frozen by a lockout, downtown St. Paul is bracing for less heat on the streets and less cash coming in.

For the 40-plus home games a season, some 18,000 fans electrify the corridors radiating from Xcel Energy Center. Pregame warmups make parking scarce near establishments from the St. Paul Grill on Rice Park to Alary's Bar on East Seventh Street and the Bulldog in Lowertown.

The National Hockey League lockout that began on Saturday, however, threatens to keep Wild fans home, depopulate restaurants and cost the city revenue and swagger.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said the streets start to buzz about 4 p.m. on game days as fans begin to arrive in their red-and-green regalia. "The feel of the town changes when we don't have hockey," he said. "The NHL brings a cachet."

The players' union and the league are at odds over core issues in their collective bargaining agreement, including an immediate pay cut for players. Training camp was to open next week, with games beginning Oct. 11. The schedule is in jeopardy with further negotiations not scheduled until Wednesday.

In 2004-05, the NHL shuttered the entire season. No one knows the duration of this stoppage, but City Hall is wary. According to the city, revenue from a half-cent citywide sales tax was down in the lost season. The following year, sales-tax revenue went up by $300,000, to $8.7 million. City leaders estimated the economic hit to St. Paul that season at $60 million.

"The Wild are a major economic engine for the city," Mayor Chris Coleman's spokesman, Joe Campbell, said. "Another lost season would be a huge blow to businesses and across the city. The mayor obviously remains concerned and is watching intently as these negotiations continue and really urges the players and the owners to reach a solution as quickly as possible."

Xcel Energy Center employs 500-plus ushers, security personnel, concierges, concession workers and others who won't be paid. Businesses that don't directly benefit from hockey, such as clothiers and antique stores, will miss having thousands of extra people in the area during games.

Under a lockout, the Wild can't market players or ask them to appear at promotional events. Fox Sports North won't air "Becoming Wild," the weekly team documentary.

A sampling of business owners projected varying amounts of pain but a consensus in favor of a quick resolution.

Fred Yarusso, owner of Yarusso Bros. on Payne Avenue, drives the restaurant's shuttle to the Xcel on game nights. Anywhere from 10 to 40 fans come on game nights, loading onto the van after twirling spaghetti noodles off of plates with the house's robust red sauce and meatballs.

"It's not going to help out St. Paul any," he said of the stoppage. The Wild "helps the whole town. Downtown buzzes. It helps our city."

Founded in 1933, Yarusso's won't get nicked badly from the Wild. "That wouldn't be a good business model to rely on one other business," Yarusso said.

Pat Boemer owns Patrick McGovern's Pub on West Seventh, which is a five-minute stroll to the Xcel. Known for succulent roast turkey, Boemer said his restaurant goes through 20 birds a day regardless of whether the Wild plays. "I was here 20 years prior to the Xcel even opening," he said. "With that being said, I'd love to have them play."

Boemer said the food at his restaurant is a regional draw -- especially with the addition of an outdoor patio in 2005. About 12 percent of his business comes from Wild game nights. "When they play, our business is phenomenal," he said. "If they don't play, our business is phenomenal too."

'My bills are still the same'

But just across West Seventh at Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub, namesake owner Reid said his revenue is "greatly diminished" when the team isn't playing. He draws a heavy pre- and post-game crowd, staffing roughly 30 extra employees on game nights. Wild fans bring in 35 to 60 percent of his business, Reid said. On game days, he put the number at 85 percent.

"Hopefully, we can get this corrected as quickly as possible. My bills are still the same," Reid said. "We limp along through the summer months waiting for the new season. Now we don't know how long we have to continue to limp."

The bills will still come in for others as well -- including the Wild and the city, which owes $32 million on the 1998 state loan to help build the Xcel.

The Wild makes $8 million in lease payments to the city annually. Those payments cover both the loan payment to the state and 90 percent of the annual debt service on bonds the city issued to build the arena, city Finance Director Todd Hurley said.

"There is no provision in the loan that accounts for a work stoppage, so all payments must be made regardless of whether the Wild plays," Hurley said.

When the team doesn't play, Wild chief financial officer Jeff Pellegrom said, "It creates quite a burden for us. ... It's always better for us when they're on the ice."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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