By ERIC KNOPSNYDER
JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Chiefs’ announcement that the team plans to move to Greenville, S.C., unless a local buyer can be found has generated some interest in keeping the team in town.
Unfortunately for local fans, none of it appears to be enough to save the ECHL’s only remaining original franchise.
“I had two people inquire about it right away, but as soon as I gave them the reality of the situation I haven’t heard back,” said Neil Smith, the team’s primary owner and interim coach.
“There hasn’t been anybody that’s serious.”
The fact that the Chiefs have already announced the move
– and that Greenville’s arena board already has a plan in place for a five-year deal with team – makes the likelihood of a last-minute deal to keep the franchise in Johnstown even more unlikely.
“It would have to be done really quickly,” Smith said of a potential sale. “From a logistics standpoint, the only way they could do it is to ask for an expansion franchise from the league. The Greenville team wouldn’t be the Johnstown franchise, it would be a new member.”
Chiefs fans have started a grassroots campaign to save the team. A “Keep the Chiefs in Johnstown” Facebook group - http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=333767620241&ref;=nf – had almost 2,000 members by Tuesday evening
– less than 48 hours after the announcement.
The idea, as stated by group creator Steve Lucas, is to find a large number of small investors to purchase the team.
“The Chiefs ownership group could reach out to the people of Johnstown and propose an ownership scenario similar to the Green Bay Packers,” Lucas says on the group's Facebook page. “The town of Green Bay owns the Packers. Every resident donated $25 for one share of the team and a board of directors is elected to run the team. With Johnstown’s 20,000 residents, a $50 donation/person would raise $1,000,000. The greater Johnstown metropolitan area’s residents could raise $7,000,000 with that same donation. I’m sure some people would be willing to donate more than just $50 as well.”
Lucas, 23 of Windber, is a history major at Pitt-Johnstown and former Chiefs season-ticket holder.
“When I heard Sunday night that they were leaving, I was pretty depressed about it,” he said. “I thought if one person can’t buy the team, why can’t a bunch of people buy the team?”
Kevin James, 37 of the Oakland section of Johnstown, also is gauging interest for a community-ownership group.
James said he has spoken with ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna, who did not return a message left by The Tribune-Democrat, as well as Chiefs General Manager Bill Bredin, but has not had any discussions with Smith about the possibility of buying the team.
Smith said that he previously had suggested a community-based group buy the team but found no takers.
“I actually approached some of the city leaders last year about doing that, about making a group that would be community-owned, but that idea didn’t really catch on,” Smith said.
“They looked at it, and thought they could handle the losses, but they couldn’t get the purchase price. I would have to be basically be giving it to them, and why would I do that?”
Smith wouldn’t say what his asking price is, but it is believed to be more than $500,000. The ECHL requires a letter of credit for $250,000 from an owner to cover any expenses, meaning that the initial investment would be closer to $750,000.
Smith has said that the team has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars since he bought the Chiefs in 2002.
Smith also said that a community ownership group wouldn’t be able to keep the team here for the 2010-11 season.
“You’d never to be able to get it done in time to play in the league next year,” he said. “If that’s going to happen, it would have to happen in the next year. I don’t think it’s realistic to happen next year. The only way it’s realistic is to take next year off and get an expansion franchise for the next year.”
Smith has said many times that he never wanted to move the team. And if he did, he certainly didn’t think he’d be in town if and when it happened.
But he's been in Johnstown since making the announcement on Sunday, and fans that he’s spoken with have been saddened by the decision instead of angered.
“I really haven’t gotten a negative reaction, people saying that it’s unfair,” Smith said. “They’re understanding, they’re just mad at the community that they didn't support it enough.”
Smith also understands that the Chiefs’ declining attendance has more to do with a weak economy than a apathetic fan base.
“In fairness to them, it’s not that they didn’t support it because they didn’t want to,” he said. “I think they didn’t support it because they didn't have the money to support it. I understand that. I know the community is in a tough economic time. When it comes to feeding your family or sending your kids to school, you better be doing that and not going to hockey games.”