A shift in planned arena locations means the Kraken’s American Hockey League farm team won’t launch in Palm Springs, California, next year as initially intended.
The team will likely play elsewhere in California, or neighboring Arizona, for a season, or share players with an existing AHL franchise before relocating for 2022-23 to the new 10,000-seat arena planned for a site about a 15-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs. The preliminary agreement to build on downtown land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians stalled earlier this year amid community and tribal concerns about the project — leading to a new deal last week to build on unincorporated land just north of neighboring Palm Desert.
“This was all about trying to find a really good long-term fit,’’ Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said Wednesday. “We went down to Palm Springs and said, ‘Wow.’ It was a really good market, on the (AHL) circuit, a place that players will love. And so, when we hit that bump in the road, we hung in there … and this other site became available.’’
It’s not yet known whether “Palm Springs” will remain a part of the future team’s name.
Agua Caliente is no longer involved in the project after pulling back from a deal struck last summer and re-evaluating its economic priorities once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced several tribal businesses to close. The tribe let the Oak View Group — the project’s developer — know in April that it couldn’t commit to the deal at that time and was focusing on operating a new casino and cultural center nearby.
There had previously been some significant community pushback over a lack of nearby parking adjacent the arena site expressed during a hearings held by the Palm Springs City Council last December.
OVG’s president of business development Francesca Bodie, whose father, Tim Leiweke, is the company’s co-founder, spearheaded the search for a different partner and found The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, which supports educational and charitable projects. The foundation is leasing the land to be used for the 300,000 square-foot arena and an adjacent training facility to serve as a year-round community gathering space.
Groundbreaking and construction are to begin next year and finish by the fourth quarter of 2022.
Kraken general manager Ron Francis said Wednesday he and assistant GM Ricky Olczyk will quickly begin seeking a temporary home for the team. Francis said potential locations could include relatively nearby venues in San Diego and Ontario, California, and Tucson, Arizona, already home to other teams’ AHL affiliates.
“The first year, it’s not going to be that big a deal for us,’’ Francis said of the farm team. “We’re going to draft guys for the most part that — unless they make our team — are going to have to be returned back to their junior teams.’’
Francis noted that the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t own an AHL team for their first three seasons after launching in 2017, reaching an agreement with the Chicago Wolves, an existing AHL team that has changed affiliates multiple times. It’s possible, he said, that the Kraken could similarly partner with an existing AHL squad for a season and use it to accommodate the Kraken’s smaller number of expected minor leaguers.
“So, we’ll explore that and check into a decision sooner rather than later on that,’’ he said.
Music and concerts will remain a key feature for the newly-planned venue. Live Nation Entertainment remains partnered on the project and pledged in the release to supply the future venue with top touring artists and live events to generate revenue when hockey isn’t being played.
“The venue will be a major must-play destination for top talent and be the ultimate fan-friendly showcase for both valley’s sports and entertainment attendees,” OVG co-founder and music promoter Irving Azoff said in a release.
Tod Leiweke said that while he’s disappointed the downtown location didn’t work out, the more regionally centralized site could allow easier access and parking for residents throughout the Coachella Valley.
“It turns out to be a heck of a site,” he said. “A number of people believe it’s actually better sited and that more people in the totality of the valley will be able to get there.”