Is an outdoor ice rink in the cards for Columbus?
The 2015 NHL All-Star weekend turned Columbus into a giant celebration of hockey and put an outdoor ice rink in McFerson Commons. With the rink in use each day from before sunrise until well after sundown, a question arose — could there be a permanent outdoor rink in Columbus?
"We absolutely loved the outdoor rink," said Jeremy Rogers, assistant general manager of the OhioHealth Chiller ice rinks. "Every day there were plenty of people saying, ‘This is awesome, you need to do this every day.’ I was grinning from ear to ear when my family was out there."
Many local voices joined with Rogers to express their desire for a permanent outdoor rink in central Ohio, but the reality is that such a rink is at least a few years away.
Alan McKnight, director of Columbus Recreation and Parks, says there have been a few attempts at an outdoor rink in downtown Columbus including the Centrum outdoor rink that was open from 1979-87 and a temporary rink that was erected for a few weeks during the winter a few years ago across from the Ohio Theater. But neither of those operations proved to be profitable.
"The challenge is as an agency we have to look at the services we’re providing and the cost of those services," McKnight said. "We have talked periodically about an outdoor ice rink but we’ve never been able to figure out how to make it pay for itself — how to make it work."
Making it work can be difficult when looking at the costs associated with an outdoor rink.
According to the Blue Jackets, who acknowledge the enthusiasm from the community for exploring an outdoor rink, over the 10 days the Winter Park rink was open, about 11,600 skaters and hockey players made use of the ice. The rink took about two and a half weeks to construct and cost around $500,000.
Building a rink is only half the financial battle. Rogers estimates that it costs more than a few hundred dollars an hour to maintain a sheet of ice, including care for the surface, staffing, overhead and utilities.
And as far as getting people to use the ice that’s in place, McKnight says that the market is still fairly young in Columbus. Rogers estimates the Chillers may see between 700 and 1,000 skaters over the course of a weekend at each of their Dublin, Easton and North locations during the winter months, and The Chiller drives additional rink use through hockey programs, skating classes and other special events.
"I know (the All-Star rink) was busy and used a lot," McKnight said. "But it was also tied around a big hockey event with a lot of other activities that drew a lot of people downtown. I’m not sure if it was a permanent facility that it would draw that kind of use on a continuous basis."
It’s that search for the consistent need for an outdoor rink that is required to begin the multi-year process of building a business case and moving a proposal for an outdoor rink through the budgeting process.
"There’s no easy answer to how need expresses itself," McKnight said. "There’d have to be a tremendous amount of demand. Over time, if we find we can’t get ice time for our programs, or if it’s getting too expensive then maybe we have to start looking at (building a rink), perhaps outdoors."
Even though an outdoor rink is not in the immediate plans for a department that already supports 240 parks, 88 miles of trails, 29 rec centers, swimming pools and athletic facilities, McKnight’s team still finds other ways to advocate for the growth of hockey.
Recreation and Parks sponsors The Columbus Ice Hockey Club that provides resources for learning to skate and play hockey, as well as for team programs. There are also two street hockey rinks in local parks.
"We have a rink at Krumm Park and one at Dodge," McKnight said. "The Dodge site is the one we talked about making so it could be street hockey in the summer and freeze it in the winter but we couldn’t make the dollars and cents work."
At the end of the day it all comes back to finding a way to make any new rink profitable, or at least financially self-sustaining. That could mean looking at other sources for funding.
Chicago, which boasts eight outdoor rinks, according to the Chicago Park District website, provides its facilities through a sponsorship from the Chicago Blackhawks. And according to CBC news, funding from GFL Environmental Corp and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment prevented an early closure of 12 outdoor rinks in Toronto this winter.
"Sometimes the private sector is better at doing things than government is," McKnight said.
McKnight estimates it would take finding a way to have a rink utilized perhaps 14-18 hours a day, seven days a week in order to consider one financially sustainable.
"Rinks in general are not considered profitable," Rogers said. "They are costly to run, and use is seasonal. When it comes to adding new sheets of ice, it’s about finding the right timing and when ownership is pulling the trigger."
While it’s not on the table for consideration right now, McKnight doesn’t rule an outdoor rink out for the future.
"Skating is growing in popularity obviously since the Blue Jackets have been here," McKnight said. "With the Chillers, you see the demand is growing and at some point an outdoor rink might make sense."
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