The $177 million PPL Center hasn't even opened, but the Lehigh Valley Phantoms owners are already looking to expand — sort of.
Jim and Rob Brooks are in talks to buy Steel Ice Center in Bethlehem.
The addition of the two-rink facility on former Bethlehem Steel land would not only give the minor league hockey team a backup place to practice, Phantoms owners say, but also would prevent the long-struggling center from being sold for another use, preserving the youth hockey programs that use it now.
"We're in discussions, but we've agreed to confidentiality," Jim Brooks said. "We really can't discuss details until something is final."
Both sides are hoping to close the deal before the upcoming hockey season begins in October, and the Phantoms appear to have been laying the groundwork for months. The 16-team youth league that uses Steel Ice officially changed its name from the Lehigh Valley Flames to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms Youth Hockey League in March. In May, it ordered new uniforms with the Phantoms' trademark logo.
As part of that partnership, the minor league Phantoms players will conduct clinics at Steel Ice. The Phantoms are a Philadelphia Flyers farm team and play in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL.
If a sale gets done, it may bring an end to more than a decade during which the recreational facility in south Bethlehem has been on thin ice financially. The rinks have been for sale since a few years after the 2003 opening, as co-owners Jeff Trainer, Dan Schantz and his son, Tom Schantz, tried to overcome cost-overruns during construction.
After years of trying to sell the building, even to someone who would have ended the skating programs, the Steel Ice owners approached the Brooks brothers last year.
"We've been talking for a while, but nothing has been signed," Tom Schantz said. "It's a natural fit for it to be run by hockey people. The Phantoms are the right people to take this over."
Built in 2003 for $8 million, it was the first project on what was then Bethlehem Steel's proposed Bethlehem Works shopping, entertainment and museum district. But the rest of the district didn't follow, and the original owners were left trying to overcome the high price they paid for the property and unexpected costs of stabilizing the land for construction.
The neighboring property has since been developed by the Sands casino, ArtsQuest and PBS39.
When the skate facility opened in December 2003 as a Flyers SkateZone, it was affiliated with the NHL team in Philadelphia. That deal lasted just a year, when local investors decided the benefits of having the Flyers name weren't worth the management fee they were paying.
The SkateZone was renamed the Bethlehem Skate Center and soon became known as the Steel Ice Center. But after several years of reportedly losing in excess of $100,000 annually, the local investors put the facility up for auction at least twice.
When they got no takers, they decided to reinvest in 2012. The addition of the Steel Pub and the emergence of the facility as the Lehigh Valley's primary center for youth and club hockey have helped improve the center's bottom line, Schantz said.
Still, the owners decided it was a better fit to put it in the hands of the Phantoms, he said.
And while Jim Brooks would not discuss the deal, he said it generally fits the family model of businesses. Natives of Pittsburgh, the Brooks family has ownership shares in the Pirates major league baseball team and the Penguins NHL team. They also own the State College Spikes, a St. Louis Cardinals' Class A team and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a Class A Texas Rangers team.
Perhaps the closest parallel to what they'd be running in Bethlehem is their ownership of the Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena, a domed facility that houses three fields of turf that are home to dozens of youth and club soccer and lacrosse teams. Like Steel Ice, PISA includes a pub and a pro shop.
"Youth hockey and youth sports in general are very important to us. We feel it helped us grow as people," Brooks said. "We definitely want to promote something like that here."
Still, there's no denying that the Phantoms would benefit from another practice facility. The 8,500-seat PPL Center, with its full-service locker and fitness facilities, was designed to function as the Phantoms practice rink as well as their home ice, Brooks said. But Allentown promoters are intent on keeping the building busy. Even before the first home game in October, four concerts and a bull-riding competition are on the schedule, and city officials say they expect to have the building active 150 nights a year.
That's more than 100 events that aren't hockey-related, many of them concerts or expos that will require hours of preparation to cover the ice and set up the event. That could push the team to alternate ice for practice, Brooks said.
"The PPL Center is an excellent practice facility, but they want that building to have a lot of evening events and we want that [for the city] too," Brooks said.
Brooks and Schantz would not discuss price or even the timing to close the deal.
For now, the Phantoms are busy getting ready for their first season in the Lehigh Valley. They left Philadelphia five years ago, when the Spectrum was demolished, and have been playing since in Glens Falls, N.Y.
The puck will drop in Allentown for their first regular season game on Oct. 17.
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