Published April 22. 2014 4:00AM
Norwich - After hearing nearly two hours of comments for and against spending up to $680,000 to repair the financially struggling municipal ice rink, the City Council voted 4-3 Monday to postpone its decision to May 19.
The postponement came with objections expressed by Council President Pro Tempore Francois, "Pete," Desaulniers, who also serves as chairman of the Ice Rink Authority. Desaulniers said the decision could delay the repairs and hurt negotiations with private hockey and skating leagues.
But Alderman William Nash prevailed in his argument that the council needed time to digest all the information presented at Monday's hearing.
Supporters of the rink dominated the hearing on an ordinance that calls for spending up to $680,000 to replace the failed cooling system and make related mechanical and energy efficiency upgrades.
But opponents said the repairs are too costly and either the rink should be closed, converted for roller skating or turned over to a private management firm. Meanwhile, the city is seeking proposals from firms interesting in taking over daily operations. The proposals are due May 7.
Major problems erupted at the rink in February 2013, when the chiller system malfunctioned causing an ammonia leak that forced evacuation of the rink. Temporary repairs failed in May, shuttering the rink until a temporary outdoor chiller unit was installed in early November. The temporary unit, however, cost about $1,000 per day to operate.
Many rink supporters reminded the council that the current management and recently appointed rink authority members are not responsible for the past 20 years of mismanagement and failure to maintain equipment. They urged the council to give the new management team the chance to repair the rink and pay back its debt to the city - which would top $1 million with the proposed project.
Mike Goldblatt, an authority member from the start, praised the new members and management, saying "I give them all the credit" for the rink starting to show a profit before last year's mechanical failures.
Coaches and leaders of youth figure skating and hockey clubs spoke of years of commitment to the rink and uncounted hours of time spent there.
Bethany Telgarsky, 18, choked back tears when she told the council how the rink helped her cope with her mother's death when she was 14 years old. She called it one of the few positives in her life during that ordeal, and said she sees the same reactions in the faces of children she now coaches who are in foster care.
Karen Hansen, the president of the Norwich Figure Skating Club, said if the rink closed, figure skaters and hockey players would be forced to travel an hour or longer to other rinks, spending their meal and hotel money elsewhere.
"Children, teens and adults in Norwich and many other towns, cities and even other states, benefit enormously from this rink," Hansen said. "This rink is not just for a specific few people. It is open to everyone and anyone that would like to skate. And if this rink closes, the Norwich Figure Skating Club will no longer exist and will have to fold as well."
Opponents called it a "bad business investment" to spend $680,000 to repair the rink. Resident Kathleen Murphy said while it's nice that residents from other towns use the rink, Norwich taxpayers have to pay the bills. She said if a private management firm does not come forward, the city should close it.
Newly appointed rink authority member Gary Makowicki pledged that the rink can make a profit based on recent management and oversight changes.
"We can't afford to see this facility go the way of the YMCA," Makowicki said, referring to the shuttered and abandoned YMCA on Main Street. "Let's do something positive for the youth in Norwich and pass this ordinance."