Howelsen Arena faces $1.5M need

New refrigeration system tops list

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Who could have guessed that at the beginning of the new millennium, ice hockey would become one of the fastest growing ways for men and women to socialize and recreate together in Ski Town USA?

Participation in the coed hockey leagues at the Howelsen Ice Arena jumped from 64 in the 1998-'99 season to 258 skaters last winter. Just two years ago, coed ice hockey didn't exist here.

"I chalk it up to the Baby Boomers in Steamboat having a mid-life crisis," ice arena manager Stacey Foster said this week. "They need to test themselves with a new sport. People get addicted to hockey. These adults will play three or four times a week if you let them."

Even as the popularity of the local rink grows, it faces financial challenges in the not-too-distant future. The source of funds for the third phase of development at the indoor ice rink has not been identified. And the present refrigeration system at the rink is nearing the end of its projected lifespan.

Combined, the bills for construction of phase three and purchasing a new refrigeration system, are likely to exceed $1.5 million. But no solid cost estimates currently exist.

City Council agreed this month to conduct a special meeting in September to talk about the future of the Howelsen Ice Arena.

Members of the Ice Rink Advisory Committee told council July 18 that their efforts to go it alone with financing for the next phase of arena improvements are unlikely to succeed. With the prospect of a need to replace the rink's refrigeration system coming within the next two to five years, the committee asked City Council for a chance to sit down and talk about the future.

Advisory Committee Chairman Steve Dawes said he expects in September his group will give City Council more specific information about capital needs at the rink. Additionally, the group will present facts about opportunities to increase revenues while holding the line on operating costs if the rink is able to operate year round, and attract skaters to summer clinics. That development would require a more modern refrigeration system, Dawes said.

"The ball's in our court to give City Council more information about the rink," Dawes said. "Our desire to complete phase three is very high. The method of paying for it is the real challenge. We need to strategize and find some way to get the project completed in a way that works for the city."

Dawes acknowledged that a year ago the committee's expressed conviction was to not have to come back to the community to complete the ice arena. But that did not work out.

Anthony Vaida, another member of the advisory committee, told council last week that his search during the past year for sources of grant money or corporate contributions to develop phase three was unsuccessful. He told council the search for grants did not yield any results, and private foundations that have given funds for recreational facilities were not interested in working with the community because the ice arena is a municipal facility, and does not have nonprofit status. An approach to the U.S. Olympic Committee, to see if it was interested in the rink's potential as a training site, was also unsuccessful, Vaida told City Council.

Phase three of development at the ice rink would replace the existing modular buildings which house administrative offices, reception areas, skate rental, changing room and locker rooms. The new permanent building would be built at the front of the arena on Howelsen Parkway. It's just one of two building "bump-outs," for which preliminary architectural drawings have already been done.

The second bump-out, Foster said, would be built at the rear or south end of the building. It would bring the compressors for the ice rink's refrigeration system within the arena building. They are now located in an auxiliary building. The second bump-out also would allow the Zamboni machine, which refreshes the slickness of the skating surface between sessions, to be parked in the main building. That would eliminate the need to expose the Zamboni's delicate surfacing mechanism to the parking lot as it's driven from its current garage to the ice.

An additional benefit of phase three would be construction of permanent bleachers that would double the seating capacity to more than 700. The new bleachers would probably include insulated seating and a radiant heat system could be suspended above the bleachers.

The discussion about the ice rink's future comes at a time when interest in formal skating programs is growing at the expense of casual public skating, and the rink is approaching the capacity for ice time, according to Foster. For the first time this year, she said she introduced the possibility of placing a cap on the number of youth hockey participants in the future. Last winter, the earliest practice at the rink began at 5:30 a.m. And some days, skaters continued their graceful arcs around the ice until midnight and even 1 a.m.

Revenues at the ice rink have shown steady growth over the last three years, but so have operating costs. The city's subsidy to the ice rink is projected to grow to $89,000 this year and $106,000 in 2001.

Dawes said the committee will present City Council with information in September it believes supports the idea that a new refrigeration system and year-round operation could reduce the amount of the city's subsidy over time. Many of the arena's operating costs are fixed, Dawes said. Currently, the arena operates eight months of the year, mid-September through mid-May. If the arena could operate during the summer, and attract a mix of local skaters and out-of-town skaters attending camps, it could narrow the gap between revenues and operating costs, Dawes said.

"I don't know that it makes us revenue-neutral or revenue-positive because of our desire to keep skating affordable," Dawes said. "We want skating to be affordable. We think that's a public statement. It's a philosophical question for council."

The cost of skating

Most of the skaters in organized programs at the Howelsen arena pay for their ice time through the program for example, the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association is billed monthly and spent $75,000 for ice time last year, Foster said.

Last year the ice was billed at $100 per hour for the use of the facility. Foster recommended a 10 percent increase to the advisory committee, but its members felt that was too big an increment for their user groups to absorb in one season. Instead, they imposed a 5 percent increase, bringing the cost of ice time to $105 per hour.

Foster said she understands the committee's concerns the fees for families with a child on a traveling hockey team now exceed $800 per season. However the average cost of ice time around the region is closer to $125 per hour.

In addition to coed adult hockey, one of the biggest areas of growth at the ice arena has been among women and girls, Foster said. There are now three women's teams in Steamboat competing at three levels. And the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association has formally assumed supervision of the girls program, which grew to 32 girls and split into two teams last year. Foster was instrumental in forming the Mountain States Girls Hockey Association so that girls could play competitively within the region.

Figure skating also remains popular, with 243 people involved in the learn-to-skate program last year. The local figure skating exhibitions drew capacity crowds of spectators last season.

The number of people taking part in informal public skating has waned at the rink as more and more locals become involved in organized programs, Foster believes.

The estimated number of public skaters dropped to 9,578 last year from a high of 12,470 in 1997/98.

"I would say 90 percent of the people who skate here are locals," Foster said. She believes the number of tourists skating at the rink would increase if the city is someday able to provide outdoor skating on a rink where the current modulars now sand on the east side of the building. But first, Foster and the committee want to see phase three of the rink construction built.

"We want to make sure we protect the programs we have, and not lose the consistency for the people who love to be down here," Foster said.

She looks forward to beginning to make ice during the last week in August, in time for a projected arena opening date of Sept. 15.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail: tomross@amigo.net

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