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Dome looks at life after hockey

They are searching for bands to fill the ThunderDome, even on dates the Tampa Bay Lightning had reserved.

They have covered the ice with wood and insulation so they can shut off one of the Dome's costly chillers.

And they will buy less toilet paper.

As the National Hockey League season sits paralyzed by a labor dispute, St. Petersburg officials who operate the Dome are scrambling for ways to cut costs, boost revenues and avert a budget disaster at the $138-million city facility. The cuts may end up being as tiny as a roll of toilet tissue or as weighty as lost jobs.

"We are presently looking at all those issues," downtown facilities director Bob Leighton said Thursday. "We are trying to put a plan together."

As the dispute between players and NHL owners drifts on, operators of facilities throughout the league are facing budget trouble, uncertainty about dates reserved for hockey games for the rest of the season, and even possible staff cuts, a survey of NHL facilities shows.

"It's not like we've turned the heat off yet," said Mike Burke, a spokesman for the Olympic Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames. "But we are looking to streamline."

In St. Petersburg, city officials earlier this week advised Lightning management that they now consider dates earlier "reserved" for 1994-1995 season games as "tentative," Leighton said.

City workers will diligently recruit shows and acts that could appear in the stadium _ even on nights that once were reserved for hockey games, he said. If the hockey season starts, and some game dates have been replaced with music, the Lightning will have to reschedule, Leighton said.

It is the strongest sign to date that St. Petersburg fears the hockey season may never start, but Dome officials say they remain optimistic.

"It's just that I don't have the latitude to hold those dates," Leighton said. "We're talking about (concerts that could generate) $50,000 to $100,000 a shot. A prudent manager plans for the worst case."

If the Lightning plays no games this year, the city could lose as much as $400,000.

The city will receive its $100,000 base rent fee from the hockey team, but other provisions of the Lightning's temporary lease with the city depend on average attendance at games.

The team pays $11.11 for each paid fan for crowds up to 13,500, and $50,000 for each 500 fans beyond that. In its first season at the Dome, the Lightning drew record crowds _ more than 16,000 fans on average.

Earlier this month, the city proudly announced that the Dome experienced its best year ever in fiscal 1994, largely because of hockey's arrival.

The city had given the facility a $1.8-million operating subsidy, but the Dome was able to return $370,000 of that when profits were better than expected, preliminary totals show.

This year, the Dome was expected to need a subsidy of $2.2-million, due in part to increased insurance costs. It remains to be seen whether that number will grow if hockey falls through.

"That's what I'm trying to work on," Leighton said. "I still want to bring it in at $2.2-million."

The Dome employs 26 people, including event coordinators, maintenance staffers, box office employees and managers. So far, no jobs have been cut, although four positions were not filled because of the NHL situation.

More than 350 part-time "event" staffers who expected to work the hockey season are not, Leighton said. On game or concert nights, 200 to 300 of those workers normally would act as ushers, ticket takers and parking attendants.

"They're on call and if there's no event, they don't go anywhere," Leighton said. "A lot of them really depend on the work."