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Bean counting isn't best way to make the best possible ice rink

April 11, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

It's getting to be a rite of spring. Well, more often, really - a rite of spring, summer, fall and winter. Those are the times we can gleefully rub our hands together in anticipation and wonder: Which "new direction" is the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex going in this season?

It's always a new something. A new direction, a new manager, a new mission, yet another new manager.

Certainly the current City Council has more serious things to answer for, such as the hospital mess and sewage discharges into the Antietam Creek, but the schizophrenic handling of the Hagerstown ice rink doesn't exactly build confidence in the council's managing abilities.

It can be argued with plausibility that from the planning stages dating back to 1996, the council is mostly a victim of putting its faith in people whose sums were less than the parts of their Zambonis. But part of governance, and part of business, is an ability to recognize people of worth - or lack thereof.

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Disillusioned with the people who run the rink, wary of backlash from members of the public who see the rink as a boondoggle and disinclined to keep sending more than $100,000 to the rink each year, the council now seems to engage in a new, more hands-on approach.

Time will tell whether this is nine years too late or about a million years too early.

But the people who matter, the people who actually use the rink, appear to be uneasy. Particularly upsetting to them was the release of popular coaches under the auspices of this "new direction," but appear to be more about penny pinching.

"I was just told they were going in a different direction, but they didn't say what that direction was. I was in complete shock," said Erin Benedum, a figure skating coach - and a good one, her students say - of five years at the complex.

In fact, complex may be the best word to describe the situation, in more ways than one. First, the entire setup is complex. Kind of private, kind of public. Kind of the responsibility of the city, kind of the responsibility of a private foundation. In such arrangements, accountability is usually compromised.

But maybe more important is the quasi-inferiority complex the city seems to have over the rink. It was a tenuous idea to begin with, and the city clearly partnered with boosters without proper research, the basis of which seemed to be, "Hey, it works in Frederick, it's gotta work here, right?"

Now, every time it spends a tax dollar on the rink, the city thinks it has to justify the rink all over again to city residents. Which it does, up to a point.

But the danger is when you start measuring the rink's success purely in terms of dollars and cents, not in terms of enjoyment and the quality of life in the city of Hagerstown. The city, and to be honest, many city residents, want to judge the rink's success or failure purely on the basis of profit.

If it pursues this course, it is in danger of having another Maryland Theatre situation on its hands, where solvency comes at the price of community benefit and good will.

As an asset to the community, I would argue that the rink is already a success, even at the cost of a city subsidy. Well over 50,000 people walk through its doors a year, which given the community's storied ambivalence toward activities and events, is pretty incredible in its own right.

Thousands of kids, under the age of 18 and otherwise, are happier people because of the ice rink. The rink is a strong answer to people who have fretted over the years that there is nothing for young people in Hagerstown to do - nothing to keep them off of the streets.

And as Hagerstown redevelops, an ice rink is a strong draw to people you want to attract downtown. Is this an attraction that is worth $100,000 to $150,000 a year out of a $108 million budget? I would say - and a bold council member would say - it's not only worth it, it's an outright bargain. And that bold council member would draw the line at getting rid of the very people who have contributed to its success.

Recreation, I think, is a legitimate government expense. It promotes health, friendships and community in a day when too many people are sitting alone in their rooms staring at the Internet.

The success of roads is judged by the condition of the roads, not by whether or not the highway department turned a profit. Same with schools, libraries, police forces and departments of natural resources. At least you get something for your money. How many people wouldn't argue that $130,000 would be better spent going to the ice rink than to fighting the hospital's planned move to Robinwood?

The time to debate the rink itself was a decade ago. Now the debate must be whether it will be a good rink or a bad rink. It is one thing to demand efficiency. It is quite another to let ledger entries stand as the sole dictator of policy - and relegate the rink to irrelevancy for the majority of the people it now serves.

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