Future of First Arena in doubt


ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – A local entertainment and sports venue could be seeing another drastic change.

First Arena, owned by the Chemung County Industrial Developmental Agency (IDA) since 2016, has seen a revitalization in the city of Elmira. That resurgence has been largely credited to the current tenants, CAN-USA, and group owner, Robbie Nichols. The current deal between the two parties began in 2018 after a lengthy negotiation process.

That three-year deal is set to expire this month on Thursday, July 15 with no official meetings in place to negotiate a new agreement yet. Both parties, according to Nichols, have had sparse communication via email for months and have not formally met with the Chemung County IDA, or IDA Director Joe Roman, who was appointed to his position in 2018. Nichols tells 18 Sports that his requests for formalized meetings with the IDA or Roman have not happened in over two years.

CAN-USA brought professional hockey back with the Elmira Enforcers in November 2018 in the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL) after the Elmira Jackals ceased operations after 17 years in the city. The group also ushered in the successful return of high school and college graduations, The Harlem Globetrotters, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) events, several youth hockey events, concerts, specialty business shows and more.

Thousands of fans crossed the gates not just for hockey but for several events at the arena since 2018. An arena that Nichols says he has poured up to $200,000 of his own money to get back into operation. That money has yet to be reimbursed by The IDA, a stipulation that Nichols said was agreed to be repaid for capital improvements as part of their deal. CAN-USA refurbished the ice plant, First Arena’s roof, repaired zambonis, and has yet to receive a cent for any improvements to the venue.

Amid the virus, Nichols and CAN-USA managed to keep the facility operating, paying bills and opened up the venue for the final stretch of the FPHL season with limited attendance for the Enforcers. Currently, Nichols pays $125 a month to rent First Arena, and all other monthly operation expenses including taxes, electric, employees, insurance, water, cable, internet and routine facility maintenance.

Nichols tells 18 Sports that after the base rent fee other expenses add up fast as the tenant of First Arena. On top of monthly expenses, the long-form ones such as zamboni costs, licensing fees, a fire and sprinkler system, maintaining the ice, elevators, and inspection costs turn into thousands of dollars per month.

In April, during a presentation at the Chemung County Legislature meeting, Roman said The IDA would be keeping all options open regarding the future of First Arena. When asked about potential negotiations with Elmira College for use of First Arena, Roman confirmed that conversation between The IDA and Elmira College.

Roman then addressed the negotiations at that time and stressed the importance of financial projections from CAN-USA and Nichols. Those projections were then provided by CAN-USA in May.

Previously in March, in the Chemung County IDA’s live video archive, the meeting discussed First Arena’s positive financial return during the 2020 COVID year. Those words were confirmed in May during The IDA’s Minutes of the Meeting Report, stating First Arena had a gain of $15,000 dollars due to naming rights in 2020 amid the virus.

Whether or not negotiations pick up prior to the July 15th deadline remains to be seen. Without a new deal, the Elmira Enforcers, owned by Nichols, could be left without a venue to play in for next season or even play at all in the FPHL.

The revitalization of First Arena and the return of professional hockey, youth events, entertainment events, and community nights in the past three years cannot be ignored. Nichols and CAN-USA have put in the work to bring one of the region’s premiere venues back to life. It would be a true, unexpected shame for fans in the entire region to see it fade away again.

In July 2017, then Chemung County Executive, Tom Santulli, said The IDA assuming ownership of First Arena was a temporary solution. The county and IDA would not be in the arena business. Then, the county needed someone like Nichols and CAN-USA to not only bring it back to life, but to operate it by the community for the community. Now, three years later, the Twin Tiers needs two parties to find a way to work together for the betterment and success for all in our special community. Something that it so richly deserves.

WETM-TV’s request for an on-camera interview with the IDA has not been returned. Stick with WETM-TV and 18 Sports for more on this as it develops.

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