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Ice rink needs an expert, not more city tax money

October 12, 2004

What are they thinking up at Hagerstown's City Hall? The latest proposal to deal with the money pit known as the Ice & Sports Complex is for the city government to get more involved - and spend even more taxpayer money.

That's a bad idea, for two reasons. The first is that unless Dorothy Hamill has secretly taken a job with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, it's doubtful anyone there has the expertise needed to manage the rink.

The second is that the idea was developed without the input of the Washington County Sports Foundation, which controls rink operations.

Even if the idea were a good one - and it's not - leaving the foundation out of the planning almost guarantees a fight. That's true especially because the city's representative on the foundation is Councilwoman Penny Nigh, who does not hesitate to speak out.

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Nigh apparently was left out of the loop, saying she was surprised and expressed concern about the proposed $36,000 a year increase in city funding.

Instead of taking on additional debt, the city needs to find someone to manage the complex who has done it successfully before.

Where would such a person be found? The city could start with a call to the Texas-based Ice-Skating Institute. In 1999, The Herald-Mail interviewed Peter Martell, the center's executive director.

Martell explained that unlike a bowling alley, where every customer does the same basic thing, skating rinks draw a variety of users.

Figure skaters, speed skaters, hockey teams and recreational skaters all compete for a share of available ice time. Keeping all those groups happy and the rink profitable at the same time is a real art, Martell said.

Since recreational skating provides the most revenue, Martell said, the key to profitability is to have good learn-to-skate programs, followed by marketing and promotions to lure back those who've taken classes.

Why not hire such a person and tie his or her salary to the number of admissions? Someone whose salary depends on bringing patrons through the door will be more motivated to do that. Someone who doesn't know the business could spend a lot of time learning - at the taxpayers' expense.

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