Norwich to decide on ice rink's future

Norwich — A pivotal week for the future of the Norwich ice rink begins Monday with a public hearing and possible City Council vote on an ordinance to spend up to $680,000 to replace the failed cooling system and do other systems upgrades at the 20-year-old facility.

The public hearing begins shortly after the 6:30 p.m. City Council meeting begins Monday, and the council could vote on the ordinance following the hearing.

The city also is seeking bids from rink management firms to take over all operations of the rink for a five-year period beginning July 1. A mandatory pre-bid tour of the rink is scheduled for Tuesday. Bids are due by May 7 and will be opened at City Hall at that time.

The financially struggling rink has operated at a deficit since it opened nearly 20 years ago, and if the council approves the cooling system replacement, the total debt owed to the city by the Ice Arena Authority would exceed $1 million.

Major problems erupted at the rink in February 2013, when the ammonia-based chiller system malfunctioned and caused an ammonia leak that forced evacuation of the rink. Temporary repairs were made, but another catastrophic failure occurred May 6, shuttering the rink until a temporary outdoor chiller unit was installed in early November.

The temporary unit has been very expensive, costing about $1,000 per day to operate, with rental costs and inflated utilities usage.

The proposed new cooling system would be non-ammonia based, and the $680,000 ordinance would resolve the outstanding mechanical problems, said rink authority Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers, also council president pro tempore. He remains confident that rink operations would turn a profit and pay off the city debt within several years.

City officials and the public have been divided on whether to invest more money into the city-owned facility or close its doors permanently.

Desaulniers said Terry McLaughlin of McLaughlin Management and Design - the engineering consulting firm the authority hired to assess the rink and recommend a new cooling system - will attend Monday's hearing to answer council questions about the proposed mechanical system.

The management firm bid is a separate but related issue. During a contentious March authority meeting, member and Alderman Mark Bettencourt defended his effort to advertise for management bids, saying it was the only way to secure potential council support for the mechanical upgrades.

The bid request for a management firm calls for the firm to take over all daily operations and to pay the city either a minimum of $75,000 or 10 percent of the gross revenues from all ice programs as well as the concessions stand, pro shop and vending machines.

The contract still would call for the city to pay for major capital expenses if approved by the authority.

An alternative bid proposal would allow a firm to negotiate a longer lease period if that firm agrees to take on all capital repair costs along with routine maintenance.

If you go

What: Norwich City Council public hearing on $680,000 ordinance to replace cooling system at Norwich Municipal Ice Rink
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Council Chambers, Norwich City Hall, 100 Broadway

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