Published March 21. 2014 4:00AM
There is no reason to believe that a leasing arrangement to manage the Norwich ice rink would work any better in solving the long-standing financial problems that have plagued the facility. The problem is not that a government-appointed authority manages The Rink, but that past authorities have not done a good job.
For proof that an authority can succeed in running a self-sustaining recreational business, one only has to look next door to the Norwich Golf Course. The Norwich Golf Course Authority has done a great job keeping the course dating to 1926 operating in the black. The authority has not only successfully managed the public golf course, but also improved it.
This is not to say there is a perfect correlation between an authority running a golf course and one running and indoor skating facility. These are dramatically different operations. Yet what remains fundamentally true for both is that there is enough demand for the recreational opportunities they provide to generate the revenue necessary to pay for operations and maintenance, without help from the city.
As with the golf authority, the Ice Rink Authority must demonstrate - through its fees, management of ice time and control of expenditures - that it can operate without continued subsidies from city government.
The City Council could opt to find a private firm to run the ice rink through a lease arrangement. But the city would lose a measure of control. And there would be no guarantee that the lessee would not confront financial problems and either not be able to meet the obligations of the lease or seek to escape or amend it.
If the ice rink is to continue - and that is certainly not a forgone conclusion - the council's best option is to continue placing operations in the hands of the Ice Rink Authority, while demanding frequent and detailed accounting.
Unfortunately, before the council can settle on how to run The Rink, it must decide whether to provide yet another bailout to keep it operating at all.
A couple of years back a revamped authority, under the leadership of Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers, appeared to have things moving in the right direction, with projections showing a likely profit for fiscal year 2012-13, when it confronted a crisis.
On Feb. 13, 2013 the original, ammonia-based ice freezing system failed, resulting in an ammonia leak and emergency evacuation. Several weeks later the authority reopened the rink, only to experience another system failure, shuttering the rink from early May through early November. A temporary chiller, located outside, now keeps the ice frozen, but at an unsustainable cost of about $1,000 per day.
The authority is asking the council to borrow $680,000 to purchase a modern, non-ammonia refrigeration unit and make associated improvements. Mr. Desaulniers, who also serves on the council, expresses confidence the rink can be self-sustaining and pay down the city debt if the new equipment is installed. Given past debts because of operating deficits, the authority will owe the city approximately $1 million if the council approves the purchase.
The alternative to investing in the facility is not an attractive one - closing it down. There are few if any options to repurpose it for another use. At 20 years, The Rink is relatively new. A busy schedule shows schools and amateur ice hockey and figure skating groups are dependent on the facility. Public skate times provide a recreational opportunity for all residents.
Certainly many of those who come to the rink to participate in games and practices stop to eat or run errands while in the city, providing an economic boost.
The best course of action for the council is to provide the authority the updated equipment it needs to achieve the goal of operating a self-sufficient ice arena.