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Devils: Newark signed letter releasing team from obligation to build community centre

NEWARK, N.J. - The New Jersey Devils' top executive took issue Friday with Newark Mayor Cory Booker's recent harsh criticism of him, particularly accusations that the National Hockey League team reneged on a promise to construct a community centre as part of its deal to build the Prudential Center arena five years ago.

Booker ripped chairman and managing partner Jeff Vanderbeek on Wednesday in a news conference in front of the arena, a day after arbitrators ruled in favour of the Devils in a long-running dispute with the city over arena parking revenue. Booker indicated that the city's lawyers were considering legal recourse.

Among other colourful descriptions, Booker called Vanderbeek a "Grade-A huckster" who came to Newark with "a mouthful of promises and pocketful of lies."

One of the unfulfilled promises, Booker said, was that the Devils would build a community centre next to the arena in downtown Newark, the state's largest city.

Vanderbeek told The Associated Press on Friday that Booker's remarks both surprised and concerned him.

"It's concerning that after choosing to take the Prudential Center to court and then have the court ruling that they needed to go to arbitration, and taking it to arbitration, that after that ruling the mayor chooses to not obey the law of the land but seems to be following Booker law," Vanderbeek said.

"Our concern is that in a city like Newark where we are trying to set a platform to draw private business in, that businesses are going to think twice when they think about the risk of coming into Newark," he added.

A 2007 letter signed by Vanderbeek and Newark Housing Authority head Keith Kinnard said that Devils Renaissance Development, the team's development arm, "shall not be required to construct a separate, free-standing community centre; rather, DRD shall only be required to incorporate and conduct community programs in the 'second sheet of ice' that will be constructed as part of the Arena Project."

Kinnard said Friday that he signed the letter at a time when the arena negotiations were at a critical stage and the city had already sunk about US$100 million into the project. He said the Devils threatened to move to Kansas City if they didn't receive the concessions spelled out in the letter.

Booker on Friday echoed Kinnard's account and didn't back down from his earlier remarks.

Vanderbeek "claimed to be an altruist and that he wanted to help the community, but he went on finding every legal way imaginable to squeeze out of every commitment," Booker said. "This just shows the character of the man, that he's more concerned with squeezing every possible dollar off the table. The rec centre is just one chapter."

The Devils haven't paid rent to the city since the arena opened in 2007 because of the parking dispute. This week's arbitration ruling ordered the city to pay $2.7 million per year in parking money to the team. Combined with other payments and fees, the city owes the team about $15 million, or a few hundred thousand dollars more than the Devils owe the city in back rent and other fees.

The city contributed $210 million toward building the arena, paid for through a renegotiated lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for Newark Liberty International Airport property. The team provided $100 million.

The Devils played their first game in the Prudential Center, known as The Rock, in October 2007 after playing at an arena in the nearby Meadowlands since the 1982-83 season.

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