New hope for L.C. Walker Arena: Lumberjacks negotiating new lease, new arena football team could be on the way

By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
LocalSportsJournal.com

MUSKEGON – Many area sports fans have feared that the Muskegon Lumberjacks could move and the L.C. Walker Arena could be dark and empty.LSJ Logo incert

But it turns out just the opposite could be the case.

The Lumberjacks, owned for the past two seasons by a New York-based group, are about to be sold to a yet-to-be-identified Michigan-based group, according to John Vanbiesbrouck, the team’s general manager.

The team is also in discussions with local government officials about extending their lease to remain in the L.C. Walker Arena for as long as 3-5 years, according to several sources. The proposed new lease would make the team a tenant, with no further responsibilities to manage the arena.

Meanwhile, Muskegon city officials have confirmed that a new professional indoor football team will likely begin play in the arena this fall.

A yet-to-be-identified local group has been negotiating with the city about establishing the new football team,  and could be close to a lease agreement, according to Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson.

The Lumberjacks and the new football team would share the building in a cooperative manner, Peterson said.

The Lumberjacks have been sold in principal, although the deal had not been closed as of last Friday, according to Vanbiesbrouck. The new owners have agreed to keep the current management team in place, he said.

“Yes, the team is for sale and it has a buyer,” Vanbiesbrouck told Local Sports Journal. “I can’t say right now (the identity of the buyer) because I’m not allowed to, but they are Michigan-based.”

The new owners have indicated an interest in keeping the Lumberjacks in Muskegon on a long-term basis, and have given their blessing to ongoing negotiations between the team and officials from the city of Muskegon and Muskegon County, which jointly own the arena.

The Lumberjacks’ current lease expires in August 2016.

Any new deal would allow the Lumberjacks to become tenants at the arena, instead of having the manage the building, which they have done throughout their five years of existence.

The current lease has been financially difficult for the team, due to very high utility costs in the aging arena, Vanbiesbrouck said. The team would no longer have to cover those costs under the new deal, he said.

“That’s the hope – the hope is for the long term,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “As far as the new deal goes, we would prefer it. The situation we inherited is something that is not doable. It doesn’t make sense from a dollars and cents standpoint.

“We’d certainly be in a better place, a significantly better place.”

Peterson, speaking at a city commission meeting on Monday, indicated that the city would probably manage the arena for at least a year, after a new deal is struck with the Lumberjacks.

Peterson also said the Jacks’ new lease could potentially be for 3-5 years.

Vanbiesbrouck said he believes the team is “on the 10-yard line” as far as getting a new lease negotiated. Yet he still expressed some skepticism about the county’s commitment to keeping the team in town.

Muskegon County Board of Commissioners Chairman Terry Sabo has been the point man in negotiations with the hockey team.

“The question we got from people all last year was ‘Are you going to come back?” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We would say we have to be wanted, too. With the county taking over for the city (in negotiations), we’re not so sure what signal we’re getting from Commissioner Sabo.

“Some of the things he has said have indicated that they can live without us. He’s gone to great lengths to share that.”

Sabo, who was in the audience at the city commission meeting Monday, said the county’s preference is to keep the Lumberjacks in town.

“Muskegon wants the Lumberjacks there, but the arena could survive without the Lumberjacks if we could have enough different events there,” Sabo told Local Sports Journal.

“I want to have hockey there. I have no preference on the type of hockey but I want hockey and I want the building to be sustainable and survive for years to come.

“We have nothing final yet but we’re working out the details (with the Jacks). We don’t have a time frame but the sooner the better. Hopefully it will be in the next few weeks. It’s a high priority to keep the building open and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, it seems clear that a professional indoor football team may very well be playing in the arena this fall and/or winter, according to Peterson.

Muskegon City Commissioners voted unanimously on Monday to spend as much as $30,000 to purchase a used turf floor that could accommodate arena football, as well as indoor soccer, lacrosse or other sports at the arena.

The county is likely to spend the necessary $140,000 on a new subfloor for the arena, which would cover the concrete and ice and allow for the turf floor to be used, according to city documents.

Peterson said the potential owners of the proposed football team are local, but declined to identify them.

“We are talking to some people who would like to bring a pro football team to the L.C. Walker Arena,” Peterson told Local Sports Journal. “They have a league in mind and it would be professional. They are expecting to announce something in August or September.”

Muskegon has prior experience with arena football.

The Muskegon Thunder played between 2007 and 2009 at L.C. Walker Arena. The average attendance in the first couple games reached over 4,000 people but quickly declined.

The team moved to Grand Rapids in 2010 and was renamed the West Michigan Thunderhawks.

Peterson said some of the potential new owners “were involved with the previous team. I am confident this group will do a better job.”

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