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Best years ahead for UML, arena

By From the Lowell Sun

By Christopher Scott
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The Lowell Devils will pay more to play hockey at the Tsongas Arena next year and the UMass Lowell River Hawks will pay less under agreements unanimously approved by the City Council last night.

But it was the pact with the collegiate team that stole the show and triggered the most councilor comments -- all positive.

"I think our best years are ahead of us with UMass-Lowell," said City Councilor Edward "Bud" Caulfield.

"I couldn't agree more with Councilor Caulfield," said UMass Athletic Director Dana Skinner. "Thank you. This is a very significant moment for us."

To keep the River Hawks playing Division I hockey at the arena, the city needed to make it more financially feasible for the team, or risk losing the team to UMass Amherst.

Under a deal engineered by City Manager Bernie Lynch, that happened last night.

The city has agreed to eliminate UMass' annual $50,000 contribution to the arena, and give UMass Lowell a bigger share of food and beverage concessions during its 17 home games, as well as a 50-50 split on advertising sold on the arena's exterior billboard.

On Monday, the UMass board of trustees athletic subcommittee, the same board that initiated discussions about whether to scratch UMass Lowell hockey, voted to support the recommendations of a special task force studying the issue providing UMass Lowell got a restructured deal from the city.

"I was concerned about shortchanging the city and this doesn't seem to do that," said Councilor Rodney Elliott.

The Lowell Devils, which once paid $500,000 a year to play at the arena, paid just $150,000 this year.

Under a new deal brokered by Lynch and approved last night, the team will pay $275,000 next year.

In the only comment of the evening mentioning the Devils' deal, Councilor Eileen Donoghue said: "I applaud the city manager and the Lowell Devils."

More often than not, councilors spoke of the importance of the River Hawks program, a stronger partnership between the city and UMass Lowell, particularly with incoming Chancellor Marty Meehan at the helm, and the future of the Tsongas Arena.

City appointed and elected leaders are concerned that the 6,200-seat venue is on a record pace to lose money for the 2007 fiscal year, which ends June 30. As of April 30, it had lost $789,000.

With professional and collegiate hockey now firmly in place for next year, city officials will study the arena's operations with an eye toward turning a profit, or at least breaking even.