Antioch Hockey Center Collaboration Between Preds and Metro a Trick for Some, a Treat for Most

An open Hickory Hollow Mall sits largely devoid of consumers in 2009. - Casey Fleser/Flickr

Earlier this year we learned that Metro would construct a new community hockey center at the site of the once-defunct Hickory Hollow Mall in an attempt to provide recreational opportunities to an underserved community and attract businesses to the neighborhood, including tenants who fled the area when the mall's previous owner sold the property for $1 million late last year. We spoke with Nashville families, community leaders, the Predators organization, and a family whose children grew up to play professional hockey about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Metro and the Predators.

The Metro Nashville City Council took up approval of the new hockey facility in Antioch this past summer, shortly after Mayor Karl Dean announced that he wanted to fund the project with municipal bonds. The Council approved the Mayor's plan in August with Resolution No. RS2013-768 (PDF), a bill that authorized $15 million in municipal bonds that mature in no later than 21 years.

Mayor Dean, along with the Nashville Predators's original draft pick forward David Legwand, 2013 first round draft pick defenseman Seth Jones, and a host of team executives, broke ground on the new facility earlier this month.

Sports partnerships are part of Nashville's civic story

The new $14 million mixed-use community facility in southeast Nashville will be the first professional sports facility Metro has built since LP Field and Bridgestone Arena, according to The Tennessean. But community-level public/private sports partnerships are not without precedent.

Although the project took four years to complete, and endured a protracted battle with various grassroots efforts opposing it, Metro eventually made good on its partnership with Belmont University, for example, to revamp Rose Park in the historic Edgehill neighborhood. When the revitalized facility finally opened in 2011, a Belmont University blog post noted that

Belmont University is investing more than $9 million in the park and will make annual lease payments of $50,000 to provide support to the surrounding schools as well as support the programming for youth and seniors at the Easley Center. Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation will own and control the scheduling of E.S. Rose Park and Sports Complex and its improvements. The renovated E.S. Rose Park facility also promotes new and improved collaborations between the Easley Center, the Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation facility located in the park; Carter Lawrence Elementary School; Rose Park Middle School; local neighborhood organizations; and nearby Belmont University.

The E.S. Rose Park and Sports Complex includes "a 750-seat synthetic turf baseball field; a 250-seat natural grass softball field; a new 300-seat track; soccer facilities with synthetic turf for safety and speed; a walking track; relocated basketball courts; and a single-story 5,150-square-foot center providing team locker space and concession stand," according to the post.

The lease agreement between Belmont and Metro Parks stipulates that 20% of Belmont's lease payments will fund the parent-teacher organizations at Carter Lawrence and Rose Park schools, with the remaining 80% going to fund the Easley Center to "support improved programming for area youth and seniors," all in addition to annual funding regularly allocated to Metro Parks by the city council for those purposes.

Belmont, too, remains actively involved in Rose Park and the surrounding communities, said the university's director of community relations Joyce Searcy by phone. "We're involved in many ways," she said. "Literacy Day is a huge deal over there. We partner on everything from teaching children to play soccer to the annual Halloween Party," which takes place tomorrow evening, and has been running for three years now. Parents in historic Edgehill do not want their children trick-or-treating in the area, but thanks to Belmont fraternities and sororities, neighborhood children can come to the park and visit booths to pick up some Halloween treats.

Searcy, a resident of the neighborhood, believes the partnership between Belmont and Metro has truly transformed the area. "There used to be broken glass, needles, and condoms everywhere in that park," she said. "It's a whole different place now, and people actually use the park. A bird's eye view might show you a Belmont baseball game taking place on one field, and a youth softball game on another field at the same time... Every partner involved pitches in to make Rose Park work for the community," she beamed.

Although Metro Parks retained ownership and scheduling control of the facilities at Rose Park in its partnership with Belmont, the Nashville Predators will take over day-to-day management of the Antioch complex after Metro finishes construction. The Preds will also be a tenant of the facility, using one of the two sheets of ice going into the new building as an alternate practice facility.

"Metro is responsible for the construction of the facility," said Predators senior vice president of hockey communications and public relations Gerry Helper in an email, "but the Predators will reimburse Metro for approximately half the cost via annual rental fees."

As chief operators of the facility, too, the Nashville Predators will assume associated risks, including all operational costs, said Helper. To that end, some of the Preds' corporate partners "may receive branding or marketing opportunities" inside the facility. To incentivize effective operation of the new complex, the Predators and Metro have a profit-sharing plan in place, contingent on the team meeting pre-established annual accounting performance benchmarks.

The Preds have tapped longtime Bridgestone Arena event operations overseer Danny Butler to become general manager of the new facility. "Our overall philosophy is to hire and promote from within, and Danny is most deserving of this responsibility and opportunity," said Helper. "There are a number of other positions related to [the operation of] the facility that will be filled as we move forward," he continued.

"The Predators are in the process of—and will continue to update—pro forma associated with facility operations," said Helper, though he declined to share any of the team's projections to date.

Officials in the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods did not return requests for comment. Absent broader transparency about the specific requirements and overall structure of the arrangement between Metro and the Preds, skepticism has arisen in some Nashville area residents, as is often the case with major public works projects.

"These kinds of arrangements almost always benefit the owners of the sports franchise more than the taxpayers," said Ben Cunningham of the Tennessee Tax Revolt, a non-profit grassroots group that aims to curb special interest influence on public policy in the Volunteer State. "My best guess is there will be quite a few devils lurking in the details of the lease," he continued. "How are taxpayers protected if the Predators are unable to make the payments? Will the taxpayers be left with more debt in the case of default?"

Former Metro Councilman-turned-housing non-profit executive Rod Williams wrote on his blog in July that he would not have approved the bond issuance because he believes the 21-year term to maturity is too long. Williams also believes Nashville has other, more pressing priorities.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, sources speaking on background did not understand why Metro would spend $14 million up front, and turn over management of the facility to a private entity.

The financial relationship between Metro and the Nashville Predators has been something of a conundrum in recent years, to Nashvillians and outside observers alike. But a community center that aims to help grow hockey's popularity in an underserved neighborhood could provide the Preds with the chance it needs to change the conversation once and for all.

How a community rink helped a Toronto family

"I didn't know anything about hockey, I just knew my kids wanted to play," said Anne Marie Clune in a recent phone interview. Anne Marie is mother to Nashville Predators forward Rich Clune and Ontario Reign (ECHL) defenseman Matt Clune.

(Left to right): Matt Clune, Ben Clune, and Preds pest Rich Clune as children, pictured with their father, Coach Tom Clune. (Credit: Ted Reeve Arena Skating and Hockey School, used with permission)

Anne Marie's husband, Tom Clune, grew up playing hockey himself, the only one of seven children in his family to play competitive sports. With roots in Canadian youth hockey, and after playing for Colby College in Maine, Tom would eventually travel to Sweden, where he played in a semi-professional league. The decision to put Rich, Matt, and Ben into hockey school rested mostly with him, says Anne Marie.

The Clunes grew up playing House League hockey at Ted Reeve Arena, a community rink erected in 1954 with help from both the City of Toronto and the voluntary contributions of various benefactors:

In the very late 1940’s, a group of East End Toronto residents felt an indoor hockey arena was needed and set out to raise half of the money required, with the City of Toronto contributing the other half. Door to door fundraising took place and Ted Reeve, a Toronto Telegram sports writer, and a professional level athlete, wrote some articles to assist the effort to build the rink.

The doors opened October 1954. An arena built by the community, for the community and that is how it is still operated today, as Ted Reeve Community Arena.

"Where we live is an interesting, old, ethnically diverse part of Toronto," said Anne Marie. "There is a mix of incomes in our area."

The Ted Reeve Arena Skating and Hockey School, where the Clune brothers began their paths to professional hockey, has enjoyed tremendous staying power, and has drawn continuous support from the very community it serves.

"I am pleased to report we are in our 44th year at the School," wrote Paul Casey, current treasurer and secretary of the Ted Reeve School, in an email. "All of our Board members and instructors," of which Casey is also one, "are volunteers," he said. "All of our volunteers are very proud of our School and the role we play in the community."

"I say to any parent now, 'just let them be, let them have fun, and stay as far away from the coaches as you possibly can,'" -Anne Marie Clune, with advice for newbie hockey parents.

Tom Clune, pictured above, was a volunteer instructor at the School when his sons were younger. He taught 7-14 year olds how to skate for four hours every Sunday afternoon. "He was very old school," said Anne Marie. "Put a chair on the ice, and get the kids to push it, that's how 'Coach Clune' taught skating," she said.

Aside from the man hours its volunteers dedicate, the Ted Reeve School has also recruited and earned support from area businesses. "In recent years, we have been honoured to be recognized by our local Business Improvement Area," said Casey. Business Improvement Areas in Toronto are consortiums of neighborhood businesses working in concert with the Toronto City Council to improve neighborhood safety and aesthetics, to attract new consumers and business tenants alike. "We have received sponsorships to assist with the costs of the School and to help keep our Program as financially accessible as possible," he wrote.

Because of equipment costs, and the lessons novice players must take to learn fundamental skills like skating, stick handling, and puck handling, ice hockey, even at the youth level, can be a very expensive endeavor.

"That's Rich in Tom's old jersey from Sweden," she said, referring to the photo above. "We couldn't afford new equipment. But we put our boys in hockey because it would keep them healthy, and if they liked it, or got an education out of it, that was a bonus," she said. And get an education out of hockey, the Clune boys did. Rich, Matt, and Ben all attended St. Michael's College School in Toronto, a small, private Catholic high school—their father Tom's alma mater.

"We have lived in the same small home for 24 years, that we have renovated to accommodate the boys growing, so we could send them to a private school from 7th to 12th grade," she recounted. "Our kids had great coaches. If you didn't get your homework done, you couldn't come to practice. You can't buy that," she insisted.

Neither can one buy the sense of community that the Ted Reeve Arena fostered in the Clune family's neighborhood.

"We worked full time, and I traveled quite a bit for my job," said Anne Marie, "so our socialization came from going to the rink for our sons' games, and to fundraisers, and things like that. Our friends started to join when we started 'Coach Clune's hockey school'," she continued. "The kids made all their friends playing in tournaments all around the city of Toronto."

Her sons learned valuable life lessons from playing hockey, too, said Mrs. Clune. "Kids really like to help each other, and hockey really brings out the best in them in terms of teamwork," she said. "They play the game with each other, and they begin to figure things out," she continued, speaking about the impact of team sports on child development.

These lessons may well have helped save Rich Clune's life when he hit rock bottom in his struggle with alcoholism and addiction earlier in his pro career.

"The things Rich did earlier in his life," said Anne Marie, referring to his House League play with his brothers and friends, "I believe helped him through his life challenges." Rich Clune told OTF in an exclusive interview earlier this season that "If I'm patient and diligent, I usually get what I want, even if it comes to me a little differently than I planned it." That attitude, asserts his mother, came from playing youth hockey, and learning, in a community rink with friends.

We asked Mrs. Clune to share any advice she might have for parents in the Nashville area with no familiarity with hockey.

"I say to any parent now, 'just let them be, let them have fun, and stay as far away from the coaches as you possibly can,'" she chuckled. Like teachers or school principals, coaches call parents when kids do something wrong, but they don't pick up the phone every time a child connects a pass to a teammate, she said. "I never wanted to be one of those moms who was like, 'play my kid, play my kid, play my kid,'" she related. "My boys used to say, 'Mommy, stay away! And don't scream,'" she laughed. "It's not going to be for everyone," she continued, "but I bet you Rich is still the last one out of the dressing room. He's been the last frigging one out of the dressing room since he was five years old," she said, suggesting that, while hockey may not be for everyone, the ones who grow to love the game are not easily separated from it.

"If I had it all to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing," she said. "Just let your kids play, don't go in the dressing room, let them have their own experiences, and [let them] become independent."

Mrs. Clune does not mean that parents should abandon their children to strangers. When Rich first began to play competitively in Toronto at age 7, Anne Marie used to carry his equipment bag for him into the locker room, until Rich's coach stopped her one day.

"If Rich is old enough to play competitive," she remembers the coach saying, "then he is old enough to carry his own bag." Anne Marie remembers, "Rich did look at me, and [the coach and I] agreed he was fine," she recalled. "[Rich] always knew I would not leave him with a stranger, but I was just outside the dressing room." From that day forward, the Preds forward would never again allow his mother to carry his equipment.

After that day, said Anne Marie, "Rich started to figure things out on his own," and that, she believes, is the bigger lesson for parents.

When we first told her of the Antioch hockey facility in southeast Nashville, Anne Marie Clune was ecstatic, but also urged a word of caution about the costs parents may bear when their children play youth hockey. "I think it's amazing, what they're doing in Nashville, and it's so fun that the sport has grown so much in the south," she said. Career minor leaguer and retired defenseman Jeff Winchester, a New Brunswick native, made similar observations in a recent OTF interview. "It's very expensive to play hockey in Toronto," she reiterated, "but it might not be as expensive in Nashville... If the kids love it, there's got to be a way to make it happen."

And therein lies the rub for the less fortunate residents of southeast Nashville. But at least one civic leader in Middle Tennessee is on the hunt for a solution to the problem.

Nashville RBI goes for an extra base hit

John Ray Clemmons is a Nashville attorney, a Predators season ticket holder, and a Centennial Sportsplex adult hockey league team captain. He has served over the past three years as chairman of the board of RBI, a non-profit whose Nashville chapter programs are administered by the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, which provides opportunities for inner-city children in the Metro area to play baseball. The opportunities that the Antioch hockey facility will provide to area residents are "huge, just huge" for everyone involved, according to Clemmons. And he has a huge idea that could transform the lives of youths throughout the Metro area. "The Preds have been very gracious in listening so far," he said when we spoke to him by phone.

A young Nashville RBI Yankees player salutes the camera while a Red Sox player suspiciously looks on. (Credit: Andrew Maraniss/Nashville RBI, used with permission)

Clemmons and Nashville RBI seek to form a partnership with the Nashville Predators and other area corporations that would help defray the costs associated with youth hockey so that the inner city children in his baseball program can enroll in programs at the Antioch center when it opens. "What would benefit Nashville RBI aligns with the Predators' interest in growing the game of hockey in Middle Tennessee," he said. "Get Out and Learn!," or G.O.A.L.! as it is more commonly known, "is a great program," says Clemmons, "but hockey is an expensive endeavor."

A July 2013 story in ESPN: The Magazine estimated that the total cost to play youth hockey over a child's life approaches $49,000. Clemmons remains unfazed, however, after his experience with successfully garnering corporate and community support for Nashville RBI.

"Nashville RBI has received corporate support from several local and national businesses, some of which also sponsor the Nashville Predators," he said. "The Nashville Sounds have been a long time friend and supporter of Nashville RBI... If we are able to steer Nashville RBI's children from the baseball diamond to the ice rink in the off-season, it will be an enormous opportunity for the children, as well as a win-win for the Predators, the city, Nashville RBI and corporate sponsors of [the Antioch] facility."

Clemmons thinks Metro's conscious decision to build a hockey facility in ethnically diverse Antioch provides a fascinating backdrop to an ongoing story. But it also demonstrates Metro's commitment to underserved minority populations, he said, and that, too, aligns with the Predators' organizational values.

"People may ask why a baseball organization wants to steer kids to hockey, and I will simply point them to the words of [Preds rookie defenseman] Seth Jones who, during an interview on 102.5 The Game, discussed his potential as a role model for African-American kids," recalled Clemmons.

"He said the best thing he can do is encourage kids to believe—despite their background or their race or their geography—they can play any sport they want, because sometimes destiny does exist," said the attorney. "He also said, 'I want all kids to have an opportunity to play whatever sport they want,'" and so do the board members at Nashville RBI, Clemmons said, which is why they want to expose their youth to other opportunities.

Clemmons, a longtime Predators fan, also believes the Predators' organizational values could strongly and positively impact the development of children in Nashville RBI's programs, in the same way Anne Marie Clune believes youth hockey shaped the men her boys eventually became. "The mere idea of teaching one of our kids the 'Predator way,'" he said, "and having that complement and emphasize the character traits learned on the ball field excites me beyond description."

While both Clemmons and the Predators remained fairly tight-lipped about some of their ongoing activities, Nashville now has the privilege of watching this potentially community-altering story unfold.

The Antioch hockey facility is slated to open in the fall of 2014.

###

Hickory Hollow Mall photo credit: Casey Flesr/Flickr, used with permission | Original

Clune family photo credit: Ted Reeve Arena Hockey School, used with permission

John Ray Clemmons photo credit: Clemmons & Clemmons PLLC, used with permission

Nashville RBI photo credit: Andrew Maraniss/Nashville RBI, used with permission

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