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Downton ice rink suffers synthetic meltdown

Published August 30. 2013 11:49AM   Updated August 30. 2013 11:54AM

It was certainly worth the try.

Two years ago New London Main Street, the non-profit organization with the mission of revitalizing the city's historic district, floated the idea of installing a skating rink downtown in winter months as a recreational opportunity that could drive commerce during the slow season.

The City Council backed the idea, providing a $116,000 city loan to purchase the rink, its synthetic surface, and support facilities for installation on the Parade Plaza, beginning with the 2012 winter season.

That year the rink did OK, drawing about 11,000 skaters and generating enough revenue to break even, though not enough to start repaying the city. It also generated the desired increased activity in the commercial district. It appeared a good start. But instead of building on that momentum, use of the rink dropped significantly this past winter.

On Wednesday, the new executive director of Main Street, Annah Perch, had the unenviable task of announcing the effort had failed and the rink will not return next winter.

Several post-mortem explanations are being offered for the disappointing attendance. After one year, enthusiasm waned and corporate sponsorship dropped off. Due to New London's fiscal problems, city funding to Main Street had been reduced, inhibiting its ability to promote the rink.

Many skaters probably did not return because they did not enjoy the experience. The synthetic surface was supposed to mimic ice, but in reality provided a much slower, ponderous skating experience. A winter rink in Westerly, using chillers to make real ice, has proved popular. But logistically, and expense wise, that did not appear to be an option for New London.

Main Street should do its best to recover expenses and repay the city through the sale or leasing of the synthetic rink, but the council might have to face writing off some of the loss. City officials knew this was a gamble going in, but one worth taking. It would do the city no good to overburden the nonprofit group.

The decision appears to mark a shift for the Main Street group, de-emphasizing the sponsoring of events and refocusing on promotion and driving economic development in the historic district. This is a welcomed approach.

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