ELMIRA, NY (WENY) -- The president of Mammoth Sports and Entertainment has made a decision about his company's future at First Arena, after it was served with a notice of termination of its lease agreement with the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency.

In an exclusive interview with WENY News, Steve Donner said he will turn the arena back over to the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, after initially requesting a mediator. 

"In an agonizing series of days and weeks, we have come to the conclusion to not fight the termination from CCIDA, and surrender the building back to the county," Donner said. 

Last week, the Chemung County IDA confirmed it was in the process of terminating the lease agreement with Mammoth Sports and Entertainment, LLC. The CCIDA and Mammoth executed a five-year lease at the end of November 2021. According to the lease, MSE would pay $1 a year rent, but would also be responsible for all utility charges and arena, as well as operating expenses and facility maintenance. 

“The Chemung County Industrial Development Agency is in the process of effectuating the termination of its lease agreement with Mammoth Sports & Entertainment LLC. A notice of termination of lease agreement has been provided to Mammoth Sports & Entertainment LLC," read a statement from the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency on May 16th.

"Looking at our options for today for legal actions, our legal team feels as the most aggressive action would be to fight this termination. To do that, we’d be tying the building up, it could be weeks, could be months, and that would delay hockey form happening. We have spent so much time, money, energy, all with the purpose of reopening the building, all with the purposes of revitalizing the building and keeping it busy, I can’t be part of that," Donner said. 

According to Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss, MSE has outstanding utility bills on the arena totaling over $200,000. The utility bills are in the name of the CCIDA, though MSE was responsible for paying them. Donner said the CCIDA has failed to repair the arena's HVAC and dehumidification systems, leading to exorbitant utility bills and damages. 

"In the rec rink, there’s no dehumidification system. With a dehumidifying system in the rec rink, it destroys it one piece at a time, everything gets so wet. When we first went into the rink, the sound system was blown, the scoreboards were blown, there were rusting pipes. And the second part of the horror of that, the two buildings are tied together with the HVAC system. So without a dehumidifying system in the rec rink, hot and cold air is being pulled from the main system to try and balance out the needs of the rec rink, so it’s fighting against each other constantly," Donner said. 

Aside from the utility issues, Donner said there were issues early on, beginning with the lease negotiation process before Mammoth Sports and Entertainment, LLC took possession of the arena. 

"I think it started with the original negotiation of the lease. The lease negotiations were so protracted, and we were urging the county to get something done early so we could get hockey into the arena in ‘21. We didn’t sign the lease until December of that year, the hockey season was already in play, so literally the day we signed that least we were guaranteed massive losses in our first year no matter what happened, because hockey drives the most revenue at the arena," Donner explained.

Once inside, Donner said the damage the building had suffered over the previous years was extensive. 

"Within 60 days of being in the arena and cleaning up, and testing all the key services in the area, it was obvious that the building had been so poorly maintained, both from the county long-term, and the previous tenant that it was literally in inoperable condition," Donner said. 

Some of those damages were outlined in a Chemung County Industrial Development meeting in July of 2021, after the agency end its three-year lease with CAN-USA. A preliminary inspection report detailed critical repairs needed, including the roof,  HVAC system and fire alarm system. According to a study by Hunt Engineers, it would cost between $6 million and $8 million to make all the necessary repairs. At the time, the IDA also approved a motion to obtain a quote for the cost of potential demolition of First Arena.

Donner said the shape of First Arena when MSE took over operations took priority to get it functional and ability to house events. 

"So here we are, two months in, there’s so much missing from the building, so many of the systems not operating. The scoreboard wasn’t operational, the outdoor marquee wasn’t operational, the bathrooms weren’t. Both kitchens, upstairs and downstairs were trashed. No sound system in the rec rink, no scoreboard in the rec rink, so we knew then I think we knew we had a big problem, and I think right then and there the CCIDA breached their lease with us, but we’re there to work things out. We're there to be there for the long term, so we were fighting through it. But we were reporting things meticulously, all the conditions of the arena, it was discussed at length at IDA meetings, acknowledged, and there was hope for some help. And so they were trying to appropriate money to help the arena, not directly to us, but to pay for some of the major improvements needed for us to operate, and that process proved to be extremely slow, laborous, almost impossible to get reimbursements. So that really now, we’re seeing mounting losses, we’re working diligently to bring in events and fix the arena at the same time," Donner said.

Donner said over the past year and a half, MSE has invested over $500,000 into First Arena, and $300,000 of his own personal funds. In its first season, Donner said the arena hosted 84 events, including hockey, lacrosse, sports tournaments, musical acts, community events, and more.

In his decision to turn the arena back over to the CCIDA, rather than fight the termination or pursue mediation, Donner outlined an action he said influenced his choice to no longer try and move forward as operator of First Arena. 

"My final decision came at how we came collectively, or how the CCIDA handled a very sensitive matter for us. Because of the losses we’ve retained, and the expenses we’ve continued to see, we thought it would be best to add to our ownership group. We were in discussions for two people to join us, one was imminent, I went through the painstaking process of letting a CCIDA member, letting him know exactly what was going on, the timetable on when we would close on our new partner, and almost to the day they said it would close, they came out with the public threat of termination, which put the whole deal on pause," Donner said. "So here we are trying to help ourselves, since we’re not getting the help from the county, or CCIDA, and they’re blocking our ability to even help ourselves. So at that point, you gotta say where are we going here? They're literally blocking us in every way shape or form to be successful."

Chemung County Executive Chris Moss pointed out that the CCIDA has not received regular financial reports from MSE, as outlined in the lease agreement. He expressed concern that taxpayer money was being spent to support the arena, and there wasn't enough public transparency from either CCIDA or MSE as to arena operations, expenses, and improvements. 

"When you ask for receipts to look at what was done, if there was nothing to hide, you’d file your financials as your lease said. I'd like to see the financials. The IDA Board couldn’t submit those to me because he [Donner] hadn’t provided them to them," Moss told WENY News. 

As for the future of hockey at First Arena, Donner said he'd like to see it continue. He has been in touch with the commissioner of the Federal Prospects Hockey League, of which the Elmira Mammoth is a member. He said he'd like to see the CCIDA broker a deal with the FPHL to allow hockey to continue, whether it's under the county's operation, or continues under MSE. 

As the time in First Arena draws to a close, Mammoth Sports and Entertainment has removed its Mammoth hockey equipment and other items it owns out of the arena and placed it into storage. Donner said MSE leaves First Arena in better shape than when they found it, and have hopes it will soon have activity within its walls again. He said if it remains vacant, it will return to a state of disrepair.

"One thing I'm extremely proud about is when it was turned over to us, it was an unsightly, ungodly disaster. When someone walks in that building tomorrow, it is pristine, beautiful, bright, clean, everything works, and that’s why I don’t want to see it close again," he said. 

The full exclusive interview with Steve Donner can be viewed below.