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Pa. ice hockey group surviving despite loss of home rink

August 27, 2000

Pa. ice hockey group surviving despite loss of home rink



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer


WAYNESBORO, Pa. - It's been one struggle after another for the parents and adult volunteers of Cumberland Valley Hockey Association whose members' only dream is having a place to play hockey.

They thought everything was all set when they formed the association early in 1998 a few weeks after the Doris I. Billow Ice Arena opened on Pa. 16 in Zullinger, Pa., just west of Waynesboro.

Association organizers could not have predicted at the time that the $3 million Olympic-size ice rink would be closed in a bankruptcy sale two years later.

Money to build it included $500,000 left in the will of Doris I. Billow, a former Waynesboro area school teacher and the rink's primary benefactor. There was also a $250,000 state grant, local cash donations plus a donation of the ice-making equipment.

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F&M Bank in Chambersburg, Pa., held a mortgage on the rest of the money needed to build and equip the rink.

When the rink was closed following a foreclosure sale by F&M Bank in April, the Association had about 100 young players and a like number of adults in its leagues, said Sam Wells, association spokesman.

"In 1999, our membership grew by 65 percent. It would have grown by another 50 kids this year if the rink had not closed," Wells said.

The leagues finished the 1999-2000 season before the rink closed in April, but not before membership among the players dropped 30 percent because of the rink's financial woes, he said.

Since the closing, Association members have been trying hard to find a new rink, Wells said. The Association is registering members for the new season which opens in September, he said.

Attempts to rent ice from the Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex, the closest ice rink to Franklin County where most of the Association's players live, failed, Wells said. He said Hagerstown rink officials want their ice reserved for their own hockey leagues.

Skate Frederick, which has two National Hockey League regulation ice rinks, will let CVHA players skate there.

"It will be inconvenient for our players to travel to Frederick but we have no choice," Wells said.

The Association also draws players from Adams County, Pa., Washington County and West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

The Association worked hard to support efforts to keep the rink alive, said L. Michael Ross, executive director of the Franklin County Area Development Corp. and former president of Cumberland Valley On Ice, the nonprofit board of directors that built, owned and operated the rink.

It costs each player $675 a year to join the Association. Most of the money goes to renting ice, Wells said.

Last year, the Association took in $116,000 in player registration fees, $70,000 of which went to the Billow ice rink in rent.

"Our association kept the rink going," he said.

Wells still has hopes that the rink will once again open to skaters even if the bank has sold off all of the equipment and inventory in the building. That includes the rental skates, the ice-making equipment and the Zamboni.

A Harrisburg, Pa., law firm is handling the sale of the building and equipment for F&M Bank, Ross said. The asking price for the building is $1.6 million.

The building could be sold for commercial, light industrial or recreational uses, Ross said. His office has had several "general inquiries. ... It's a matter of getting the right match at the right time," he said.

Any interest in returning the building to an ice rink would be "unrealistically optimistic," he said.

Ross also said there is ample blame to go around for the demise of the Billow Ice Arena. "It's been a culmination of several factors," he said.

CVOI has to shoulder some of the blame, he said.

"Let's put it this way. We dropped the ball partially," he said.

There were problems from the beginning, including fighting by two groups - one that wanted the ice rink to be built in Greencastle, Pa., near Interstate 81 and one that wanted it in or near Waynesboro, Doris Billow's hometown. The issue was finally settled in court.

"It was intended to be a regional facility that would include Washington County," Ross said.

When officials in Maryland saw that construction of an ice rink in Franklin County was being delayed by legal wrangling, they decided to build a rink in Hagerstown, Ross said. When that happened, a financial resource dried up for Pennsylvania, he said.

And construction costs came in higher than expected, he said.

The rink was plagued with management problems from the beginning, he said. One manager after another either quit or was forced out in the first year the rink opened. As a result, no proper marketing strategy was ever developed, programs were never put into place and the rink opened in December, the worst month for ice rinks, he said.

"We started out behind the eight ball," Ross said. "We got through 1998 OK, but we were in deep trouble going into 1999. We got delinquent and things started to snowball."

A last-ditch effort was launched this spring when Curt Baker, a Chester, Pa., financial consultant, tried to line up investors to bring the mortgage up to date and save the rink. Rent money from the Hockey Association also kept the rink alive through the year, Ross said.

Baker, in the few months he was here, proved the rink could succeed with the right marketing and programs, but he was never able to come up with a financial package that satisfied the bank.

"The bank was in a difficult position," Ross said. "They tried to create an opportunity for the rink to succeed, and they were probably more flexible in our situation than they would be in most cases because they recognized the community impact of the project."

Anyone wishing to donate to the Association or register to play can call Wells at 1-717-762-3424 or send an e-mail to cvha-hockey@usa.com.

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