WisBusiness: No sports for La Crosse Center as focus shifts to business events

By Gregg Hoffmann

LA CROSSE – First, basketball was told “no thanks.” Now, the La Crosse Center Board has told hockey the same thing.

The board voted last week to turn down an offer to bring a junior hockey team to the center. Earlier this year, the board expressed disinterest in a proposal to bring an All American Professional Basketball League franchise to the center.

By rejecting these sports franchises, the board members have sent a message that they are willing to trade certain booked dates that come with sports schedules for conventions and trade shows that they feel have a broader benefit to other businesses in the city.

“There are advantages of having sports franchises,” Center director Art Fahey said in a phone interview earlier this year. “You have a potential of 60 or more dates already scheduled if you include hockey and basketball. Of course, those events will draw from a radius of 30-40 miles. That helps restaurants and bars, but doesn’t add as much to hotels, for example. You have to compare the sports with the possible displacement of other events we hold here.”

Fahey said after the May 16 meeting that while he receives regular correspondence from sports leagues interested in the facility, there is nothing serious on the table.

Several downtown businesses and others involved in tourism promotion and business development said too many dates for hockey and basketball could conflict with some of the bigger conventions and shows that bring in thousands of people.

Mike Tatoian, Victory Sports Group president, had been interested in bring a U.S. Hockey League franchise to La Crosse for about four years. But, he told the La Crosse Tribune, "I think what happens next for us is really nothing. There really isn’t a Plan B to go to in this instance. If the center has decided not to pursue hockey then there isn’t another option for us. The recipe they’ve been using for the last three or four years has been working and they don’t want to change the ingredients."

The center board did fund a $22,000 study to determine the cost of retrofitting the center with ice. That study said costs could reach $3.1 million for the center and $8.5 million to convert the nearby Green Island Ice Arena into a viable junior hockey facility. Tatoian has disputed the $3.1 million figure.

"We want to remain in good graces with La Crosse, but at this point it’s pretty much over," Tatoian said. "The first domino that needs to be tipped there is, are you willing to have a hockey team in your arena? If the answer is no, it doesn’t matter how your retrofit is going to be paid for. I think it would have been easier for everyone if that idea would have been shared four years ago."

The La Crosse Center once housed a CBA basketball franchise and an Arena Football team.