Canal District rink forecasts on thin ice?

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John Towler and Matt Jacobs know a thing or two about running an ice skating rink.

Towler is assistant manager at Buffone Skating Arena on Lake Avenue. Jacobs is a supervisor at New England Sports Center in Marlborough.

PresMet

Sun Staff / Worcester Sun

The former PresMet Corporation site on the corner of Harding and Winter streets, the proposed site of two ice rinks

The proposed construction of an ice skating arena in Worcester (by Marathon Sports Group and the Worcester Business Development Corporation) is gaining significant attention by both proponents for the continued revitalization of the city’s Canal District and critics who don’t see skating rinks as a viable investment.

Opinions are mixed, even among people who manage rinks.

“They [Marathon Sports Group] have to realize it’s not that easy to keep one pad (rink) open year-round. Never mind two,” Towler said.

“A rink in that area of the city, with limited parking combined with energy costs, payroll and liabilities, I honestly don’t see how they’re going to do it,” he said.

Jacobs, on the other hand, said building rinks in the Canal District “without a doubt makes sense.”

“I think it will be great for the community. There’s demand for the rinks with all the high school and local hockey going on,” said Jacobs, who has been involved for 15 years with ice skating arenas in the area. “There’s demand for more ice in the area.”

Buffone Arena is open year-round and, according to Towler, generates good attendance during the weekdays over the summer, but only because another popular nearby rink, Horgan Arena in Auburn, is shut down during the summer months.

“A rink in that area of the city, with limited parking combined with energy costs, payroll and liabilities, I honestly don’t see how they’re going to do it.” — John Towler, assistant manager, Buffone Skating Arena

Also a concern, Towler said, is the seasonal downtown rink, which is already hurting weekend business at Buffone Arena. The Worcester Common Oval, which charges only $2 for public skating and $3 to rent skates, is drawing a crowd that might have otherwise been skating at Buffone. Public skating and skate rentals are both $5 at Buffone.

“The oval is hurting our public skate big time. That’s killing us. We used to get hundreds of people on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Now what they have is a novelty and it’s half the price,” Towler said.

Towler adds that public skate at Buffone has been in a downswing the last several years, with the exception of Friday night “DJ Skate,” a popular event with teenagers.

Supporters of a rink in the Canal District are less concerned with how often the ice will be reserved and are, instead, enthusiastic about the improvements the rink will bring to an area of the city already growing in popularity.

Edward Murphy, president of Werentcentralmass.com located in Kelley Square said, “The economic impact of an additional 50,000 people per year into the neighborhood will generate a revenue and spur a development around that neighborhood, which looks horrible now and generates no revenue.”

Buffone Arena is the only rink open for public skating in Worcester. It is state-owned, by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is managed by Facility Management Corporation (as is Horgan).

Although construction of the two new rinks on a proposed site at Winter and Harding streets won’t be complete for nearly two years, some impact on Buffone and other local rinks is inevitable.

“It [Buffone Arena] wouldn’t close,” Towler said. “but it would effect it somewhat. It’s a state-owned building and we are a private management company, so we aren’t going anywhere.”

The plan for the new facility includes two skating rinks, a pro shop, a restaurant, multiple locker rooms and administrative offices.

Towler noted that other prominent ice skating rinks in the area — Northstar Ice Sports in Westborough and New England Sports Center — may add rinks at their locations.

The Buffone Skating Arena on Lake Avenue

Courtesy FMC Ice Sports

The Buffone Skating Arena on Lake Avenue

Although building additional rinks would suggest a demand for more ice-time in the area, Towler believes these additions on the outskirts of Worcester will only make it more difficult for new rinks within the city to succeed.

“What it comes down to is what they’re going to charge people for ice-time,” Towler said. “We charge $225 for 50 minutes of ice-time, and that’s on the low end in the area. If they (Marathon Sports) are going to have a top-notch, energy-efficient building, then I’m sure they’re going to have a price closer to what the newer rinks are charging.”

The Marlborough rink charges up to $294 per hour for ice time. Towler suggests that a new facility in Worcester would have to charge at least somewhere around $280 per hour.

“Not to be a naysayer, but I just don’t see it working. I don’t know what kind of market they’re going to tap into. People are going to skate at one place on a weekend. There’s only so many times you can tap the same wallet,” he said.

Buffone Arena is home to the Worcester high school cooperative team (five Worcester public schools and Leicester High), and the Grafton High School and Blackstone Valley Tech co-op, as well as Assumption College. Buffone is also home to youth hockey groups including the Junior Crusaders, Shrewsbury Youth and Junior Sharks. The Worcester Men’s League plays at Lake Ave. on Sunday nights.

Even with these leagues and teams, according to Towler, Buffone Arena isn’t in a position to  turn away business. “The only time we have to do that is when we get the occasional group looking for prime-time ice, which really doesn’t exist anywhere in-season,” he said.

“Most college and high school games occur on times that are normally booked anyway,” Towler said. “We only pick up more fees when they practice during early morning or afternoon ice times, which normally don’t get rented.”

New England Sports Center is home to several area high school and college teams, including Worcester Academy, St. John’s High School and Becker College — all schools that the proposed rinks in Worcester could hope to attract.

According to Jacobs, The Union Tavern and Patsy Duggan’s — both bars close to the area of the proposed site for the rinks — currently sponsor men’s league teams in Marlborough.

“If those rinks were to go up, we would have reason to believe there would be men’s leagues forming down there. I’m sure those bar owners would want their teams to play near their bars,” Jacobs said.

“I think the men’s hockey leagues will draw people to to the bars, to get dinner, maybe shop and hang out in the neighborhood. The colleges playing there and practicing there will draw students into their neighborhoods,” Murphy said.

Edward Russo, a member of the Canal District Alliance Board of Directors, told the Sun, “I am in 100 percent support of the skating rink. I think it’s one of the best things to happen to the Canal District in years.”

Russo added, “Anytime you bring people in the area, the retail and entertainment is going to flow. Folks have done a great job building this area up to what it is today. I think it’s time to bring more people down here and I think the skating rink is a great place to start.”

“The economic benefits to the neighborhood will be tremendous and we are very fortunate to have such a large scale project come here,” Murphy said.

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