Published February 10. 2014 4:00AM Updated February 11. 2014 9:53PM
Norwich - The Norwich Municipal Ice Rink has been a popular recreational spot for figure skating, hockey and public skating since reopening in October, but the cost of renting and running a temporary chiller is eating up much of the new revenues and the rink's debt to the city continues to grow.
The Ice Rink Authority now has a plan its chairman hopes would resolve the rink's chronic mechanical problems and turn the rink around financially - as long as yet another new request for funding from the city is approved.
Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers, who also is City Council president pro tempore, said Friday that after a year of struggling with the aging mechanical systems at the 20-year-old rink, the authority now has a plan to replace the temporary chiller with a new cooling system that would not use ammonia.
Desaulniers hopes to present the plan to the City Council on March 3. The rink authority already owes the city about $400,000 in subsidies paid to cover operational losses since it opened 20 years ago. But Desaulniers said the rink's popularity this winter shows it's worth the effort.
"It's a big nut we're going to have to pay back," Desaulniers said. "I know we can pay it back. The time frame is going to be five, seven or eight years, but we will pay it back."
The rink experienced major mechanical problems a year ago that forced it to close last February after an ammonia leak caused an emergency evacuation. The aging cooling system failed again in May, and the rink remained closed until Oct. 8, when a new temporary rented chiller unit was installed.
Since it reopened, hundreds of patrons have attended public skating programs, dozens more have enrolled in learn-to-skate programs and beginning hockey clinics, rink manager Doug Roberts said. During December school vacation alone, public skating sessions averaged about 300 skaters per day.
Teams and clubs rent the ice from 5:30 a.m. to midnight on busy days. The rink's bleachers were crowded for the two performances of the Nutcracker on Ice in November.
Roberts said 35 children signed up for the last learn-to-skate program, and 80 people preregistered for the current learn-to-skate class on Sunday afternoons. Roberts also is gearing up to start spring hockey and skating programs.
"We're going to increase the public skating time in the spring and summer," Roberts said. "That's something we can do to really create an opportunity for people to use the rink."
The rink will host a hockey tournament on Feb. 20, when nearly 100 guests are expected for the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event.
But the cost to rent and operate the temporary chiller is running about $1,000 per day, including the $19,838 per month rental fee to the Trane company, and the unit consumes an exorbitant amount of electricity - twice the cost of the rink's previous cooling system.
According to revenue and expense figures provided by the Norwich Finance Department, the rink has brought in revenues totaling $338,533 from October through January, not including $80,000 the City Council agreed to advance the Ice Rink Authority to remediate ammonia brine and install the new rental chiller unit.
The total cost to remediate the mechanical issues and install the new rented chiller from August through January was $156,632, and electricity bills at the rink from October through January totaled another $81,416. A year ago, with the old cooling system in place, electric bills from October through January totaled $42,283.
The Ice Rink Authority hired GF McLaughlin LLC Management Design and Construction to assess the condition of the rink's mechanical systems and provide options and bid specifications for a permanent new cooling system and dehumidifier, Desaulniers said. The evaluation and design work will cost a combined $25,000. The evaluation has been done, and Desaulniers expects to receive a report on the design options next week.
The firm will provide three design options for a new cooling system, and at that point, the Ice Rink Authority will approach the City Council for permission - and funding - to go out to bid for the work.
If approved by the council, the bid process could be done by late March and equipment could be installed within 12 to 14 weeks after the bid is awarded, putting completion at about the end of June.
"It is longer than we hoped," Desaulniers said. "At least now we know, and we're going about it in the right way."
He said if the council rejects the plan, the rink will have to close its doors.
Editor's note: This version corrects the amount the rink authority owes the city.