Originally published in the Whitecourt Star
Whitecourt Town Council voted unanimously to continue discussions regarding a proposed $500,000 loan to be provided to the Whitecourt Wolverines Junior A hockey team.
The proposed funding will be used to expand the Scott Safety Centre arena, which will provide the team with its own changeroom.
Administration will be bringing an outlined agreement back to council for final approval.
Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak said the arena upgrade was the product of talks the Town entered into with the Alberta Junior Hockey League team after it officially committed to staying in Whitecourt for the foreseeable future on Feb. 21.
“They had decided to stay here and then we had discussions after the fact about how every other Junior A team in Alberta has their own dressing room,” she said.
Team owner Brent Stark emphasized that he would be paying $250,000 of the $750,000 total renovation cost and that he intends to repay the loan.
“Quite frankly, on my end of it it’s not the greatest asset move. I’ll never own it outright,” said Stark.
Stark said that having a separate locker room is important because of the bonding experience it fosters by allowing the team to be there hours before the game.
“We’ve got players coming from all over and that’s where a team gets together … We’ve got kids coming from all over the map. It allows them to build some camaraderie,” he said, adding that the current dressing room is often being used by other leagues and teams.
A plan for the franchise to pay back the loan is in the works, said Chichak.
“When the final proposal comes to council, and the final paperwork, it will include things like the capacity to repay the loan (and) how they would be paying it back,” she said.
“The team itself and the ownership will have to put in a plan that they will show to council how they will be able to repay that debt and I think that they have a few options that are available to them,” Chichak said, declining to specify what they are.
There is a precedent for such a loan, she said, citing the golf course borrowing “between $2.5 million and $3 million” to finance its clubhouse in 2010-11.
A contractual obligation for the Wolverines to stay in Whitecourt will likely be part of the final agreement, Chichak added.
Ownership explored the possibility of relocating the team in December 2016, due to declining attendance.
Stark said that although the team’s finances haven’t been in the best shape recently, the team hopes to become profitable for the next season.
“We’re going to hit up Whitecourt hard, sharing our marketing plan this year to see if Whitecourt buys into Junior A hockey,” he said.
Having a private locker room isn’t going to make a significant impact on the team’s financial position, said Stark.
“It’s minimal. Nothing huge, that’s for sure, but it will drop it down a bit,” he said.
The Wolverines had a historic playoff run in 2016-17, winning the North Division championship for the first time.
Stark said he has yet to receive full financial disclosures from the past season, but that the increased attendance speaks for itself.
“As far as the playoff run, just look at the attendance alone. We’re playing for the north final and have 650 people in the stands,” he said.
However, according to league attendance data provided by Stark, the Wolverines saw a significant drop in regular season attendance to 12,726 in 2016-17 from 21,702 in 2015-16.
Chichak called the town’s relationship with the Wolverines “a great partnership.”
“It’s giving the team the ability to have their own dedicated dressing room. They’re going to be repaying it back with their own funds and we’re participating by providing a loan up front for them to accomplish that,” said Chichak.