CALEDONIA – A local state legislator is demanding answers after reports this past week indicated the company in charge of events at the Blue Cross Arena was demanding $10,000 to hold a memorial service for the three National Guardsmen killed in a helicopter crash in Mendon last month.
In a statement Saturday, Assemblymember Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, said it appeared Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the company the city of Rochester contracts with to run events at the downtown venue previously known as the War Memorial, resisted hosting an event honoring the three guardsmen.
“Very sad that the ‘War Memorial’ won’t hold event for deceased hero soldiers,” said Byrnes, whose 133rd Assembly District includes all of Livingston County and the town of Mendon in Monroe County where the helicopter crash occurred. “After jumping through hoops and even (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo signing off, I am told Pegula wanted $10,000. Event moved to much smaller venue and no longer open to public.”
The ceremony is scheduled for Feb. 26 at the Rochester National Guard headquarters on Patriot Way, near the recently-renamed Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport, according to a report by WHEC-TV, channel 10 in Rochester. National Guard spokesman Col. Richard Goldenberg told the television station that a proposed service at Blue Cross Arena was never planned to include the public.
Pegula Sports and Entertainment is owned by Kim and Terry Pegula, who also own the Buffalo Bills.
Byrnes noted in her statement that state taxpayers have provided roughly $54 million to the Bills organization through the state budget process as part of a 10-year agreement to keep the football team in Western New York.
“PLEASE EXPLAIN WHY YOU TURNED AWAY A CEREMONY FOR OUR THREE DECEASED HEROS,” Byrnes said.
Rob Minter, vice president of business operations for Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester War Memorial, responded to media reports Monday evening with a statement: “As the Guard mentioned on Thursday, their decision to move the event was solely based on timing and logistics. At no point did we attempt to deter the Guard from holding this memorial at The Blue Cross Arena. Terry and Kim Pegula have great respect for our military, our veterans, and our country. Our entire organization’s thoughts and prayers are with the families of the fallen soldiers and all the men and women who bravely serve our country every day. “
Bob Lonsberry, the radio host with WHAM, 1180-AM in Rochester, first reported in a Feb. 19 column that Pegula Sports and Entertainment was resistant to the idea of holding a memorial service for the three guardsmen at the Blue Cross Arena.
“Public officials naturally wanted the War Memorial for the service honoring the fallen soldiers,” wrote Lonsberry. “But they hit a brick wall when they approached the Pegulas.”
Continued Lonsberry: “Because of seemingly purposeful intransigence from the company owned by Terry and Kim Pegula, and its practical refusal to allow a community-owned arena to be used for a memorial service, three soldiers, killed in the line of duty, will not be able to be honored by the community they served and called home. Which is despicable.”
To read Lonsberry’s full column, click here.
WHAM-TV, channel 13 in Rochester, reported later Friday that after the Blue Cross Arena fell through as a venue for the memorial, the National Guard decided to hold the event at its flight facility at Rochester International Airport.
That news didn’t sit well with family members of one of the fallen guardsmen, York native Christian Koch.
“Out of everything that we’re going through and dealing with and handling, this is the absolute last thing that any of us need,” said Koch’s widow, Theressa Koch, according to 13-WHAM.
Click here to read 13-WHAM’s full report.
In a statement emailed to the County News Sunday night, Koch’s mother, Josephine Koch, said she hoped news coverage of the change of venue prompts “a public outcry” and helps bring to light what exactly happened to derail the memorial service being held in the Blue Cross Arena.
“How can they determine that a memorial for three soldiers who gave their lives in the line of duty cannot be honored in a venue that has been four weeks in negotiations with all requirements satisfied,” Josephine Koch wrote in the email. “We, the families, are not sure where the truth lies.”
Christian Koch, 39, was one of three guardsmen killed in the Jan. 20 crash. He was a Chief Warrant Officer 4 and a resident of Honeoye Falls at the time of his death, though he previously lived in Avon and York and graduated from York Central Schools in 1999. Also killed were Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steven Skoda, 54, of Rochester, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Prial, 30, of Rochester. The UH-60 medical evacuation helicopter the three men were piloting was on a routine training mission when it crashed about 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 in a field along West Bloomfield Road near Cheese Factory Road in Mendon. The unit trains to perform aeromedical evacuation and the crew had been conducting night vision goggle proficiency training in the local area.
Funeral services for all three soldiers took place near their hometowns the week following the crash.