Monday, July 19, 2010

An unofficial history of the Texas Brahmas

Part Six - Blue Line

The Blue Line Ice Complex was an unimposing structure. In fact, unless you knew it was there, you might not know it was there. Set back in the shadow of the Birdville School District’s Athletic and Fine Arts Complex, the 140,000 square foot building housed three ice rinks and was the first facility of its kind in Northeast Tarrant County.

Blue Line was the brain child of Keller entrepreneurs Greg and Valerie Fitzgerald, who recognized that ice sports were becoming more popular locally, especially given the success of the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars, who were on track to win the Stanley Cup. The Fitzgerald’s believed that an ice-skating facility marketed towards young families, could draw over a million customers annually.

Their plan was to build a premier ice complex, using the best ideas from many rinks that they visited beforehand. This would include a 3,000-square-foot full-service restaurant with a view of the ice, sky box suites, a media room and a coffee shop. Each rink would have four standard locker rooms. In addition, the complex would house one professional-size locker room. Private party rooms and an arcade would complete the family recreation center.

In addition to offering hockey programs for players of all ages, Blue Line would offer skating classes, private skating lessons and figure skating as well.

While looking for locations, the Fitzgerald’s were drawn to North Richland Hill’s 310-acre Home Town Development, a four-phase, master-planned, mixed-use project which would eventually consist of approximately 1,400 homes on 300 acres, with more than 300,000 square feet of office, retail and civic buildings.

Construction began on the building in 1998. The facility, which reportedly cost about $12 million to build, included a special insulating material that was used in the ceiling which allowed Blue Line to use indirect lighting, eliminating hot spots on the ice, as well as shadowing.

The Blue Line Ice Complex opened at the end of October of 1999 and before long, over 700 people were active in the hockey leagues and figure skating programs. The NAHL’s Texas Tornado as well as the University of North Texas Eagles soon called the facility home along with numerous high school and recreational leagues.

Replicating the success of many professional hockey facilities, Blue Line sold a number of advertising spaces on the ice surfaces, as well as on the dasher boards. Even their Zamboni machines were used as advertising vehicles.

Due to cost overruns during its construction, various components were not ready by the time the rink opened for business. The pro shop was run out of a trailer in the parking lot. The restaurant was never completed.

Although the owners had an optimistic vision, overhead costs were high and the facility failed to turn a profit. Ice space went unused and expenses skyrocketed. In addition, three other ice rinks had since opened in Northeast Tarrant County in Euless, Flower Mound and at the Grapevine Mills Mall.

Being crushed by more than $9 million in debt to more than 25 creditors on a property that the county appraised at $14.4 million, Blue Line's owners, Fitzgerald Holdings, LP filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February of 2002 in order to reorganize the debts from construction of the complex. They hoped it would be a quick bankruptcy but that was not to be.

With a construction loan set to go permanent, finances became an issue. The Fitzgerald’s sought permanent refinancing from a secured lender but were unable to get it.

In May 2004, the bankruptcy was converted to Chapter 7 because the owners were unable to bring in enough revenue to meet the projected payments. Blue Line closed its doors in June.

By late August, Blue Line was headed for foreclosure. Although prospective buyers had expressed strong interest in buying the rink, it became clear that nothing would happen until the bank took the property back.

On September 7th, Frost Bank purchased the rink in a foreclosure auction for $3.8 million and held the title while the city of North Richland Hills pushed the bank to sell the property.

Prospective buyers included Charles Key, owner of the Texas Tycoons minor league basketball team. The Tycoons were a part of the American Basketball Association. Key hoped to recast the skating center with as many as 11 basketball courts and an indoor soccer or football field. He Planned to gut the interior and add more than 6,000 seats arranged in a pit style around the courts. He wanted to host ABA teams and amateur teams from North Texas for competitions.

Tom Train Sr. also expressed interest in the property. Train was a former general manager of Blue Line and former operator of Texas Ice in Fort Worth. He wanted to reopen the facility as an ice rink.

Blaine Stoughton, a retired professional hockey player who had played eight seasons in the NHL was also in on the bidding. Stoughton had announced in September that he had a purchase agreement to buy the rink. He wanted to reopen two of the sheets of ice and possibly use the third for an indoor football or soccer field.

But by early 2005, none of the potential buyers could put together a bid that Frost Bank was willing to accept. All during this time, the building and its contents suffered from vandalism, theft and a general lack of upkeep. Moisture had collected into the compressors that were used to freeze the ice and had started to corrode the equipment.

Other parties expressed interest in the property and some even made offers but two years after Blue Line had closed its doors, the facility remained dormant. That would change a year-and-a-half later, when an investment group led by two brothers with a vision would change the face of indoor sports in Tarrant County.

Next up: Vision

Photo Credit: Cleburne Sheet Metal

No comments: