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With new group between the pipes, ice rink deserves appreciation

September 16, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

After a decade of turmoil, troubled leadership, financial shortfalls and public criticism, it seemed there wasn't anything left that could possibly go wrong at the Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex.

And then the Zamboni broke down.

About the same time, the city decided to terminate its contract with the group charged with managing the rink, the Washington County Sports Foundation. The rink closed this summer - city officials said it was a routine, maintenance-related closure, but there was speculation that without a dependable management group, it might never reopen as a skating facility again.

Fortunately - for everyone from the taxpayer to the child learning to skate - the Hagerstown Youth Hockey Association has stepped in to make a stick-save, and it has the potential to be a beauty.

City staff chose the group as the best of several options.

City officials and HYHA leaders are appropriately diplomatic when discussing management on the past 10 years. I am inappropriately undiplomatic, but I will take HYHA's lead and only describe the rink's history as "colorful."

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HYHA president Jeff Barbour and vice president of programming Paul Sweeney say the group has management skills, access to a pool of willing volunteers and, most importantly, a passion for the ice.

"We want to prove over the next several months that it can work," Sweeney said. "We want to provide a nicer, better-run facility - something Hagerstown can be proud of."

The rink will save money by relying more on volunteers than paid help. Programs will be expanded and the hockey league promises to reach out to, and include, other rink users in the management process. One member donated office furniture and Hagerstown Ford fixed the Zamboni. "The only way it's going to work is for everyone to be involved," Sweeney said.

The group is currently running the rink in a temporary capacity, but on Tuesday it will present a plan to City Council that will run through next June and reopen the rink to figure skaters and public skating.

"We're so happy that these guys stepped up," said Mayor Bob Bruchey. "We'd been pulling our hair out for six months."

Indeed. In the early '90s, the movie "The Mighty Ducks" inspired a nationwide hockey fad that to a degree has been slowing ever since. Hagerstown jumped on the wave after it had crested, and the initial enthusiasm had diminished to the point that some have argued the rink should be closed permanently or converted into an antique mall, or something.

But even in the worst of times, it's hard to argue that the rink has been a failure.

According to finance director Al Martin, the city pays the annual mortgage of $115,000, which will be paid off in another five years. It also pays about $90,000 a year for utilities.

In return, the rink reports about 50,000 visits a year. Of course this will frequently represent the same person visiting more than once, but the bottom line is that every day it's open, the rink is entertaining an average of a couple of hundred people. In an age of video games and Facebook, this is not to be scoffed at.

The ice rink is a public amenity and it is no sin that it's supported by public dollars. There's no cry to shut down the municipal golf course, and Martin says that its city subsidy is about the same as the ice rink's.

Millions of dollars have been pumped into City Park, Bruchey added. And, if swimming pool costs were prorated through the year, its city subsidy would be about $30,000 more than the rink.

The rink has been subjected to some other unfair criticisms as well, the most jaw-dropping one being that - hold onto your hats - people from outside of Hagerstown are using it.

Pray, do people have the same complaint about, say, Antietam National Battlefield? Outsiders are enjoying our battlefield, damn it.

Practically every waking moment, the city, county and travel bureau try to cook up inducements to attract people from outside the area. Now we have something that does it, and people complain. (And, ironically, Skate Frederick has stepped in to help rescue the Hagerstown rink.)

As AYHA officials point out, when a league team visits from, for example, Chesapeake, Va., it doesn't leave on the same day. The team stays here, eats here and may explore the town a bit.

All that aside, the talk shouldn't be of subsidies and economic development, however keenly interesting policy wonks find the topic to be.

To my mind, the fundamental value of the rink is this: It gives kids something to do - a place to exercise, a place to build self-confidence and a place to dream.

We have this curious habit of obsessing over child obesity and kids shiftlessly hanging out on street corners, yet when an elixir such as the ice rink presents itself, there's a line of people a mile long wishing to run it into the ground.

A glimpse of the bigger picture might be warranted. If the ice rink inspires only one child a year to get in the habit of exercise for good, the savings in medical tax dollars over the course of this child's life is very likely to exceed the rink's entire annual subsidy.

And HYHA is dedicated to broadening the net. It plans to put together a Washington County high school team, it's encouraging figure skaters to organize their own clubs and sponsors "pond hockey," which loans gear to children, allowing them to drop in when they have the chance to learn the sport.

"They just go out and fool around and they catch the bug for the game that way," Barbour said.

If catching a bug for recreation instead of television isn't a healthy use of tax dollars, I don't know what is.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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