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Belleville Bulls owner mulls OHL club’s future: ‘We don’t have an appropriate facility’

Charlie Graham has been a bright spot during Belleville's rebuilding season (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

The Belleville Bulls' reno vs. relocate saga is building to a head.

What municipality is going to pour money into an arena that regularly has large swathes of empty seats and what team wants to stick around when the arena is part of the reason it's last in the Ontario Hockey League in attendance? Eleven months ago, Belleville owner Gord Simmonds stated that he had no desire to move the Bulls and was "convinced" the ageing Yardmen Arena would be upgraded.

Ultimately, though, the eastern Ontario city has higher priorities going into a municipal election year, meaning no one wants to touch a political hot potato until a new council is seated in November. The Bulls have one more season on their lease with an option to renew for 2015-16 and '16-17, but Simmonds would like to see a commitment soon.

From Shelden Rogers:

[Belleville] city councillor Jack Miller [who is also the Bulls' play-by-play announcer — Ed.] says council has more important things to worry about at the moment.

“Other projects right now have priority. We are dealing with (the need for) a new police station; we are dealing with (construction of) a new firehall; we are looking at significant upgrades on our infrastructure. Those things have to be dealt with now. We are hoping that within the next couple of years that the issue of the Yardman Arena will then start coming back to the forefront once we have these things out of the way,” Miller said.

Once city council does tackle the issue, it will still depend on the financial position of the city at that time, he said.

But Simmonds said he always thought that the Yardman project was one of the city’s biggest priorities.

“From my point of view, (Miller’s comments are) kind of the first I have heard that it’s not a priority. They’ve always suggested that modernizing the arena was rising as a priority on their list. I would have to think in their strategic view it’s still a priority.”

The message from the Bulls as to what they need to move forward and stay in Belleville is simple, he said.

“From the Bulls’ point of view, we’ve made it clear that us playing in a more modern facility is a prerequisite to keeping the team in Belleville. I guess it really depends at what point the city continuing to (defer) that as a priority … will match up with my partners and my willingness to stay in a marketplace where we don’t have an appropriate facility.” (Qnet News)

Fire prevention and policing vs. major junior hockey. It's evident what should be tackled first. Translated out of newspeak, that bit about willingness to stay in a marketplace means how long Simmonds, et al., can stick it out in an arena that limits their revenue stream and ability to woo players. That doesn't mean another buyer willing to keep the team in Belleville could not be found.

The Bulls are averaging an OHL-low 2,202 fans at the Yardmen with a rebuilding team that is in the OHL basement with 14 wins in 50 games. It was fourth-last in attendance at 2,551 last season when finished first in its conference, boasted two NHL first-rounders in Brendan Gaunce and Malcolm Subban, and came within one victory of reaching the OHL final.

In their salad days, 2008-09, when current Montreal Canadiens star P.K. Subban led them to a second consecutive appearance in the OHL semifinal, they averaged 2,970 in the 3,257-seat arena. The size and state of the building has limited the Bulls financially compared to other OHL teams, even when the team has been thriving on the ice. The overhead for running an OHL team isn't decreasing, either; the Sarnia Observer coverage of the likely sale of the Sarnia Sting stated that team's operating budget is more than $2 million annually, compared to a half-mil in the late 1990s.

Belleville can expect improvement next season when its younger players are more mature, but attendance might not have a commensurate bounce-back.

The broader point seems to be that the Bulls have been patient, but can't be patient forever. The Quebec League's Gatineau Olympiques were in similar straits, with owner Alain Sear in need of a new rink but having no desire to move. It's taken years, but it's finally happening. In this case, Simmonds isn't demanding a new building, just improvements to the current one. With a municipal election looming in October, though, it's a political hot potato for the current city council. Chances are, it gets handed off to the one that will be seated in November, which will decide how much it should subsidize a hockey team. If not, though, the OHL could have a lame-duck franchise on his hands.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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