The Trail Smoke Eaters got a break from the City of Trail this week granting the team over $15,000 to cover outstanding debt.
At a July 18 Governance Operations Committee meeting (GOC), Trail Council agreed to extend the Smoke Eaters a grant for $15,298 to cover 2015-16 rental fees of the Cominco Arena, the largest amount ever granted by council to a sports team.
“I think this is the least we can do considering the economic impact that this team has on the community,” said councillor Kevin Jolly.
“In addition to the fact that our community is inextricably tied to the branding of the Smoke Eater franchise and it would be, in my view, an absolute disaster if the team were to not to continue to exist.”
Like many teams in the BCHL, the Trail Smoke Eaters struggle to stay afloat. If not for a $75,000 windfall from the Wenatchee Wild franchise fees, the Smoke Eaters would have suffered a loss of about $50,000.
Bills not withstanding, the Smokies were also hit by a government tax audit that resulted in the Canada Revenue Agency garnishing another $50,000.
Council members Jolly and Sandy Santori and Chief Administrative Officer David Perehudoff met with Trail Smoke Eater executive on July 4 to explore ways to strengthen the city’s relationship with the team. But it wasn’t until Smokies president Tom Gawryletz explained the tenuous financial situation of the Trail Smoke Eaters Society that council members recommended action.
“When we met at the meeting that was not their request at the meeting, they did not ask for a penny,” said Santori. “They said, ‘We’ll get through it.’ It was through our effort, the committee’s effort, to bring forth to them, ‘How can we help you to get over the hump, to build this relationship, and to stabilize you?’”
The council committee recommended that the Smoke Eaters send a request to council for the grant to ease the financial pressure.
“There’s no secret, it’s been tough for the past four or five years and it’s starting to catch up on us,” said Gawryletz.
“We ran into some problems, and approached the city and they were willing to give us a bye on what we owed from last year and help us out … They were very good about it and we’re ecstatic.”
In exchange, the Smokies will give the City of Trail logo space on the the front of their jersey to recognize the city’s sponsorship, and continue with the Home of Champions logo on the rear window of the Smoke Eater bus, in addition to the publicity the Smokies give Trail every time they go on a road trip.
In an effort to offset expenses, the Smokies will also host a number of fundraisers such as their golf tournament, the steak and lobster dinner for players, parents, and fans, and two 50/50 draws this season. Fundraisers accounted for over $30,000 in revenues last season and the team hopes for similar success this year, but Gawryletz recognizes that a winning team and a playoff berth is still the best way to attract fans and address the bottom line.
“We need those playoffs, that’s all there is to it. Even one round, it’s worth almost $50,000 to us. One round of the playoffs would almost get us even for the year. But don’t get me wrong no one in the league is making money.”
As Santori pointed out at the GOC meeting, last season the Penticton Vees lost over $300,000, the Surrey Eagles were about $400,000 in the red, and the owners of the Cowichan Valley Capitals walked away, leaving over $100,000 in debt in that community.
“So for a bunch of people that volunteer, whether they be the booster club or the chip stand, given the dynamics of running a $700-800,000 operation and losing 50 grand without making playoffs, I think that is pretty admirable,” added Santori.
The Smoke Eaters also are quietly seeking private investors or partners, much like Florida businessman Mark Stevens who purchased 15 per cent of the Victoria Grizzlies franchise in January.
“We’re exploring all options,” said Gawryletz. “There’s about four teams in the league that are for sale, so the chances of someone to buy Trail over a couple of the others is pretty slim, but if we can find some kind of partnership with anyone or any group than yes. We’ve talked to numerous people around town, there’s no interest locally so our next step would be to go outside the area, with the stipulation, obviously, that the team can’t be moved.”
While difficulties continue to mount for BCHL teams, figuring out a viable and productive solution is ongoing. Despite the Smoke Eaters financial woes, few Junior A teams enjoy the rich tradition and global recognition of the Smoke Eaters and their intrinsic value to the City of Trail.
“It would be absolutely devastating for this community to see a loss of the Smoke Eaters,” said Trail Mayor Mike Martin.
“The fact that they are coming back and prepared to continue to work at it – I know it’s a significant amount but in the big picture it’s not, and (hopefully) this can help them make a difference.”
The Smoke Eaters are always looking for volunteers and billets for the players. To help out phone 364-9994.