Norwich skating rink must turn around finances

Norwich - After years of operating in the red, with cash advances and now budget subsidies from the city, the Norwich Municipal Ice Rink will be given the 2012-13 fiscal year to turn around its fortunes or face possible privatization or even closure.

The rink owes the city $260,959 from cash advances over the years. After approving a second year of budget subsidies to keep the rink operating, city officials are demanding cost-cutting and a general turnaround.

The city directly subsidized the rink with $54,000 in the current fiscal year and will pay a $27,000 subsidy to the rink in the fiscal year starting July 1.

"The city has been advancing funds in anticipation that they will turn the corner," city Comptroller Joseph Ruffo said. "Now, we're at a point where we don't expect them to turn the corner."

To address the urgency, the council appointed Council President Pro Tempore Francois "Pete" Desaulniers to the Ice Rink Authority to work on changes that could reverse the trend.

The authority will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the rink to discuss finances.

In the city budget document, Ruffo explained the need for the subsidy but also wrote that the city considers it an advance to be repaid when the rink becomes profitable.

"Without contributions and profitable operations, the city will be forced to close the rink," the budget document stated.

The rink was approved by voters in a 1994 referendum to be operated by an authority expected to be self-sufficient. Over the past 10 years, the rink has shown either minor losses or small profits. The rink finished in the black by $8,100 in 2006-07, had a mere $700 profit in 2008, dipped back into the hole by nearly $14,000 in 2009-10 and lost $19,000 last year.

The rink is in the red by $73,814 in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, Ruffo said.

Ruffo also is concerned that even during the profitable years the authority has not been able to build a reserve for repairs and improvements to the now nearly 20-year-old building.

Norwich accountant Michael Goldblatt has been chairman of the authority since its inception. Goldblatt said several factors have hurt the rink. Utilities costs are about $180,000 per year, nearly double the initial estimates. Internet sales of hockey and figure skating equipment have hurt the rink's pro shop. He said the recent drop in figure skating and public skating is due to the recession.

"I don't deny the rink has been a disappointment financially," Goldblatt said. "I wish I could do better and will try to do better. But in a business, no one guarantees profit. We did make good profits, good cash flow in the first few years."

Goldblatt said the rink has received a proposal from a figure skating group to rent a large block of time, which would help boost revenues.

He rejected a suggestion that the rink close for the summer. The authority would have to pay unemployment benefits and would lose rental income. He will propose cutting summer hours by opening at 2:30 or 4:30 p.m. The midday public skate time has few patrons and could be eliminated.

The rink has three full-time staff - 12-year rink manager Jim Sanca, his wife, Mia Sanca, assistant manager for marketing and programming, and finance director Michael Arnone. One proposal is to cut the assistant manager to part-time hours or eliminate the position.

Hockey rink rentals are strong, Goldblatt said, and a new girls' hockey team has started. But figure skating and public skating have declined. He hopes volunteer coaches can help boost the programs.

Ashley Foy, a former professional skater, a Simsbury resident and former member of the German National Team, said Thursday that she has seen the problems at the Norwich rink.

Foy said she comes to Norwich two or three times a week to give lessons to three girls. She also frequents other rinks in the state. The Norwich rink, she said, "is different," with an apparent disconnect between management and the coaches, skaters and parents.

Foy has offered to volunteer as figure skating program director. She said she would not add more Norwich students to her own lessons, but would try to get parents and coaches to become more involved. She said the Norwich rink is valuable as the only year-round rink in eastern Connecticut.

"We're hoping to turn the rink around," Foy said. "I really think we can. There has been a lack of effort. The coaches, parents and skaters have to put in more effort."

Desaulniers said Foy is not the only one who has volunteered during this crucial time, and the authority has to decide how best to use their offers.

On Tuesday Desaulniers wants to address operating hours, staffing, daily operations, including the concession stand, which is run by a private vendor whose lease expires in August.

"I'm hoping we can pull it all together," Desaulniers said. "They want to succeed. Mike is trying. Maybe it's our fault, too, for not paying attention to them all these years. We went soft shoe with them, and now the stick is coming down."

c.bessette@theday.com

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