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Ice rink may try to melt troubles

December 10, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

A slow summer has left Hagerstown's ice rink on such thin financial ice that officials are considering melting the ice and holding other activities there next summer, the chairman of the rink's nonprofit board said Wednesday.

"The skating season last year tailed off dramatically after March. Once we got into June, with Little League going on, it went from a dramatic dropoff to a screeching halt," said Gary Wright, chairman of the Washington County Sports Foundation, which runs the rink.

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The rink owes the City of Hagerstown $56,470 in rent for July through November, foundation officials said. The rink, five months behind on its utility payments, owes the city $15,000 for electricity and about $1,800 for water and sewer.

The foundation owes $18,000 to its management firm, JRV Management Inc., of Ann Arbor, Mich., officials said.

The foundation ended its first fiscal year on Aug. 31 with a loss of almost $130,000, Wright said.

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"We didn't know how lean the summer really was. ... Once you decide to keep the ice frozen, you're in a situation where it's frozen and you might as well open the doors," Wright said.

The foundation will kick off a three-month capital campaign by the end of March 1999. The plan is to raise more than $200,000 to be used, among other things, to replace the rink's sand foundation with concrete so the facility is more flexible during the months when few come out to skate, Wright said.

With a concrete base, the rink could be used for roller hockey, indoor soccer or trade shows, which could generate more summer revenue, he said.

Board members will decide in March or April whether to keep the ice frozen in June, July and part of August. The decision will be based on how many people sign up for the spring ice hockey leagues, Wright said.

The $2.3 million Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex opened on Aug. 15, 1997, at the Hagerstown Fairgrounds. This was the first year the rink was open for the full summer.

Sand was used as a foundation to speed construction so the rink could open by the Aug. 15 target date, Wright said.

It will cost $100,000 to build a concrete foundation and $60,000 to $80,000 to build locker rooms with showers for ice hockey tournaments and the adult hockey league, Wright said.

The remaining money raised in the capital campaign would go toward operating expenses, he said.

If the board decides to melt the ice, the rink could have a concrete foundation in place by summer for sports activities and trade shows, he said.

During a typical summer week, 100 to 150 people skated at open sessions, compared with 450 to 600 people during a winter week, said Mike Olson, the rink's general manager.

Attendance has picked up since early November despite the recent heat wave, Olson said.

Phoenix Color Corp. is sponsoring free public skating this Saturday from 7 to 8:50 p.m. and from 9 to 10:50 p.m., he said.

Starting on Dec. 19, there will be one three-hour open skate for $5 on Saturday nights rather than two separate two-hour sessions that cost $4 and $3, Olson said.

Since open skates are the rink's main money maker, the foundation has had to rely on loans and lines of credit to get through the off season and has prioritized bills to pay, foundation officials said.

JRV Management postponed collecting its fee, which is $54,000 annually, Olson said. Other bills needed to be paid, he said.

Wright said the foundation is caught up with its other private creditors and has met its payroll, including Olson's approximately $32,000 annual salary.

The foundation has used $13,000 of the $100,000 line of credit from local banks, and that will be repaid by the end of March, Wright said.

The mayor and City Council met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss the rink's finances. The rink owes the city $73,270 in rent and utilities and is backing a $250,000 loan from local banks.

The $250,000 loan has been used, but was repaid, Wright said.

All of a separate $225,000 loan from the city is outstanding, he said. That loan and the $1.2 million loan the city gave the ice rink for construction are paid back through rent.

The council decided to give the foundation more time to pay the rent and utilities since the rink is entering its busiest time of the year, said Councilman William M. Breichner, who serves on the foundation's board.

"One of the biggest problems with the rink is it was underfunded" so it had no reserve funds to carry it through slow periods, Breichner said.

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