RALEIGH — Now that Raleigh City Council and Wake County Commissioners have agreed to fund and build a sports and entertainment arena, will a hockey team come? Apparently, that decision now rests with the owner, general manager and coach of the homeless Hartford Whalers.
Since team owner Peter Karmanos last visited Raleigh, with an eye toward housing the team here, he has narrowed his prospects down to two cities: Raleigh and Columbus, Ohio. Also since that visit Raleigh has made a firm commitment to building the arena and, according to Karmanos, some possible obstacles have developed in Ohio.
Columbus is still in the running for a National Hockey League expansion team, a fact that could get in the way of a deal with Karmanos. Also, the only possible interim site in Columbus for the team to play in is an empty airplane hangar. Raleigh has offered a temporary arrangement with the Greensboro Coliseum.
But the final decision rests with Karmanos, and he says he's not revealing much until the decision is made.
Karmanos met in private with Triangle leaders Tuesday afternoon.
Karmanos says he may decide between Columbus and Raleigh as a new home for his team before Columbus residents vote on arena funding next month.
Columbus voters will decide May 6 on a three-year, half-cent sales-tax increase that would generate $192 million of the $277 million needed to build a sports complex with the arena and a soccer stadium.
But Karmanos said the choice could come in advance of the vote.
``Hopefully, we'll be able to make the decision before that,'' he said in a news conference in Raleigh. ``The assumption is (the referendum) will pass. We'll try to make an objective evaluation and make the decision as soon as possible.''
Karmanos praised the people of the Raleigh-Durham area and the television market. But he also mentioned several links to Columbus. His wife's family is from a Columbus suburb. Karmanos' Compuware Co. has an office in Columbus.
But the owner, who is leaving Hartford after failing to reach an acceptable deal on a new arena there, said he's not ``trying to pit Raleigh against Columbus. We're just trying to see what deals the cities are offering and make our decision.''
If the Whalers moved to North Carolina, the team could play at the Greensboro Coliseum until a new arena in Raleigh is completed. Karmanos told Columbus leaders he could transform an old McDonnell Douglas aircraft manufacturing plant into a temporary arena.
On Monday, the Wake County commissioners approved allocating an extra $48 million in hotel tax revenue to help pay for the $120 million arena.
``We've got the (financing) deal, we've got the building, and (Karmanos) needs to make a decision in a hurry,'' said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. ``It all bodes well for us.''
Karmanos was slated to travel to Greensboro Wednesday to meet with city officials and again tour the coliseum there.
--From Staff and Wire Reports