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Howie Hanson: Dukes owner: 'We're not shopping the club'

A nasty rumor has Dukes owner John Ehlert talking with prospective buyers who seek to move the team. "The rumor is absolutely, categorically incorrect. Nobody has contacted me," Ehlert said earlier this week, a day before the club drew only 1,072...

A nasty rumor has Dukes owner John Ehlert talking with prospective buyers who seek to move the team.
"The rumor is absolutely, categorically incorrect. Nobody has contacted me," Ehlert said earlier this week, a day before the club drew only 1,072 to shrink its league-low, per-game average to 1,193.
Sioux City, the league's second-worst drawing club, averages 2,596 a night while four teams -- St. Paul, Winnipeg, Lincoln and Schaumburg -- average over 4,000. The Dukes reportedly are on pace to lose $120,000 this season, needing to average about 2,500 to break even.
The Dukes will cap a six-game homestand on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. and Sunday at 2:05 p.m. against Winnipeg.
Northern League Commissioner Miles Wolff has said the Dukes will remain in Duluth as long as he runs the league. Ehlert says he agreed to this when he bought the club last winter.
The Dukes' lease at Wade Stadium runs through the 2002 season.
"We have a wonderful fan base, but it's not enough to operate a successful business," Ehlert said matter-of-factly. "We have yet to unlock the secret to give the Duluth-Superior market what it wants. We'll keep trying."
Duluth Mayor Gary Doty, who was instrumental in bringing Northern League baseball to town in 1993, scoffs at the suggestion that historic Wade Stadium -- which some argue has been allowed to fall into disrepair and is an embarrassment to the community -- is responsible for the club's low attendance. Or that the solution is a new ballpark built over the hill, possibly built in collaboration with St. Scholastica. He's on a campaign to defend the city's $700,000-plus commitment to the renovation of the stadium.
"The key to success for the Dukes is a winning team," Doty said recently. "When they're in the hunt (for a league championship), people show up."
Meanwhile, the Dukes believe further improvements are needed to make the 60-year-old stadium more fan friendly. The city seems to have lost interest in the project, the Dukes believe, and a guess is the league is monitoring City Hall support very closely.
Doty said he won't run for re-election in 2002. Retention of the Dukes is developing into a campaign issue. Ken Hogg, who's looking like a mayoral candidate more each day, attends several Dukes games each summer.
Said Ehlert: "I wish I was smart enough to follow the mayor's advice to just win, and people will show up. I don't want to pick a fight with Doty, but it's unrealistic for somebody to say all you have to do is win."
Ehlert, who lives in the Twin Cities, says he's committed to keeping the team in Duluth and says the town brings up the moving issue more than he does.
"Everyone says they hope we don't leave," Ehlert said. "My answer is always, 'Is this a bottomless pit? Absolutely not.' If our attendance keeps going down, and there's no support, I don't have a sign outside my window saying 'Ehlert Charity.' It's a business opportunity we want to grow in Duluth."
Is Wade Stadium an asset to the Dukes? The Dukes' recent 60th anniversary celebration of Wade Stadium flopped. "It might be my biggest disappointment so far," Ehlert said of the promotion. "We marketed it hard, but nobody showed up. Nostalgia seems to work for only a few."
Between the lines
* Bananaz Family Entertainment Complex in Duluth's Canal Park has committed $13,000 in sponsorship to the 2001 Marshall Hilltopper Holiday Classic hockey tournament on Dec. 26-28. "It's an event we're proud of, and our sponsorship reflects our commitment to our community and our youth," said Bananaz General Manager Vivian Sylvester. Joining Marshall in the tourney will be East Grand Forks, Grand Rapids, Superior, Rosemount, Champlin Park, Fort Francis and Hudson, Wis., a state champion last year.
* About 450 area Boy Scouts will camp out at Wade Stadium Saturday night, following the Dukes-Winnipeg game. It's a first-year promotion Dukes' Manager Ed Nottle introduced in Sioux City.
"It's a good start for Duluth, with the 400 to 500 kids taking part," said Nottle. "Sioux City had 1,600 Boy Scouts stay over one night this summer, and about 900 Girl Scouts the next night. It's quite a sight to see the kids' tents dotting the field and the kids having a good time at the park, under the lights of the stadium. We'll settle the kids down a bit before bedtime by showing a movie or two at homeplate. The local Army Reserve has donated their mobile kitchen to help us prepare breakfast for the kids."
* The City of Duluth NFL Flag Football League, for boys and girls in grades 3-7, is one of Parks & Rec's fastest growing programs. Registration could reach 300 from 100 just two years ago. Teams play five players on a side, with no punting or kickoffs, and no score is kept. Quarterbacks must either throw or hand off the ball. Games begin the week of Sept. 10 and continue through October. Teams play one game a week at Wade Stadium softball fields. The fee of $35 includes a reversible Vikings' jersey. Registration deadline is Aug. 3. Mouthguards are required equipment. Register at your local community center, or call Ross Demant at 723-3679.
* Mars Lakeview Arena will host an eight-team, 40-and-older men's no-check hockey league on Sundays beginning Nov. 4. Four games will be played starting at 5 p.m., and teams will play a 20-game schedule. Teams are allowed a maximum of three players ages 35-39. "We have two teams signed up, and the league should fill up fast," said Mars Lakeview manager Brendan Flaherty.
* At least one area high school is holding daily workouts during an eight-week summer hockey period, as allowed by the Minnesota State High School League. But Marshall School players are holding only captain's workouts and playing games on weekends, including an eight-team tourney in Cloquet this weekend. "I want our kids to enjoy the summer, to play soccer or football in the fall and to be hungry for the start of hockey in mid-November," said Hilltoppers' coach Brendan Flaherty."

Howie Hanson writes a weekly sports column for Duluth Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 624-4189 or by e-mail at Howie@duluth.com .

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