Hockey hero: Local man saves the Ice Park!

cover-icepark-brownandwilliamsons "I hope more people get to know how much fun ice skating and hockey are, and will participate in the sports," says Roberta Williamson, left, with new owner Mark Brown, his daughters, Annabel and Caroline, and Bruce Williamson.

Local ice skaters, meet your unlikely hero: 29-year-old businessman Mark Brown. On Friday, July 16, he purchased the struggling Charlottesville Ice Park to end months of fear and speculation that the massive building, widely seen as a Downtown nexus, might–- like the controversy-stained shell of a hotel nearby–- stand empty for years.

The purchase comes two weeks after skating stopped and at a price of $3 million, more than a million less than the asking price and about a million below the 1996 development price.

"I hadn't really thought about it when the sale was announced in February," admits Brown, a Kentucky native and 2002 UVA grad who grew concerned when, weeks after the owners announced the June 30 closure in April, no buyers had come forward. Part of the problem, then Ice Park co-owner Roberta Williamson said, was in the ice rink's bank statements: she estimated the business she and her ex-husband Bruce Williamson and two other investors purchased for $3.1 million in 2003 had been losing as much as $70,000 per year, a deficit she said they simply could not sustain. (The Williamsons bought out their partners sometime after the sale.)

Although Brown, a father of two, had never ice skated before and doesn't count hockey or figure skating among his personal passions, he wasn't deterred.

"I decided to go over and see if there was something I could do," says Brown, who set foot in the facility for the first time on Thursday, May 27, after brainstorming new uses for the venue.

"One possibility I couldn't accept was that it would sit empty," he says, citing the nearby skeleton of the Landmark Hotel as a blight he doesn't want to see repeated.

Brown says he feared that if the Ice Park closed, other significant downtown businesses might soon follow, including the Regal Downtown theater, whose lease, according to original developer Lee Danielson, actually lets Regal pull out of its lease if the Ice Park closes.

"They would be released if they wanted to be," says Danielson, "but I don't think they would want to be. The theater has been very successful."

Regal representatives did not return a reporter's call at posting time.

On June 1, Brown, owner of the building that houses the Escaf© and Brookville restaurants across the bricks from the rink, wrote an official "letter of intent" to the Williamsons following a week of intense research that convinced him the Ice Park can become a profitable venue– with some significant changes.

cover-icepark-browngirlsCaroline and Annabel Brown peer into the rink now owned by their father, Mark Brown. The Ice Park will reopen in September, and new owner Brown expects the space to become multi-use, with an ice covering floor system that will enable the venue to accommodate indoor soccer and lacrosse as well as conventions and parties.

The most significant and controversial change is his decision to melt the ice five or six months of the year, from April to September. In an email sent to Ice Park users before the sale explaining his plan and seeking funding, Brown suggests that melting the ice could save as much as $55,000 per year in water, electricity, and Zamboni fuel costs.

"While I know many of you will be sad," he writes of the warm-weather skating absence, "it will enable the ice rink to continue operation into the future."

Also enabling the continued operation, he says, will be the purchase of an ice-covering floor system that will allow turf to be laid atop the rink for indoor soccer and lacrosse, as well as some type of flooring for special events and convention use. Brown envisions art shows, wine festivals, trade shows, even large weddings renting the space.

The addition of the building's 27,000 square feet of convention space– the rink itself measures 17,000 square feet–- excites Omni general manager Paul Maher, who has been limited in the events he can host by the Omni's 5,500 square-foot ballroom.

"It's very good news for the Omni and also the Downtown Mall," says Maher. "It will give us an opportunity to attract some big dinners, themed dinners that require seating for 1,000 people, which currently we can't do."

Hosting conventions isn't the only one of Brown's ideas–- adding a bar so that teams looking to socialize after a game won't head to other Mall restaurants for a beer but might instead spend their money at the rink is also in the cards.

"If we can keep that spending at the Ice Park, it will help the economic viability tremendously," Brown wrote. He also now hopes to have Escaf© catering on site. "That way we don't have to staff it, but you can sit down and have a nice meal," he says.

Brown is not the only one who considered purchasing the facility. Realtor Roger Voisinet, founder and former coach of the UVA men's hockey team, says he and a small group of investors approached the Williamsons soon after the closure was announced to negotiate a purchase. But by late May–- around the time Brown was preparing his own offer–- Bruce Williamson suggested that Voisinet's offer was too low for consideration.

Voisinet, however, says that he still plans to invest in the Park through the newly formed Ice Park Friends LLC, which already has 26 interested parties considering putting up a minimum of $5,000 apiece.

"Our goal is to raise $50,000," says Voisinet, who praises Brown's plans for the Ice Park, even with the removal of ice for much of the year. "It's a departure from the norm," he says, "but on the other hand, it's important for everyone to think creatively and outside the box."

Voisinet says he and his men's hockey team will likely travel to play during the summer months, and he remains hopeful that melting the ice every summer won't end up being necessary.

"Everything that's going to happen at the ice park is an experiment," he says. "By being investors, we'll have a little more input."

Seller Bruce Williamson says he's "delighted" with Brown's purchase and his plans.

"I am excited to see him put his ideas into place," says Williamson, who declines to comment on whether he and Roberta ever considered buying flooring to render the space mixed use, saying only, "We wish him all the best and will be among his biggest fans and supporters."

So will Brown be able to make the Ice Park profitable where two previous owners failed?

There are several hurdles still to leap, even now that the ink is drying on the deal. The first, Brown admits, is fixing the air conditioning system, which– once the chill of the ice is removed–- isn't sufficient to cool and dehumidify the space. "We're working on that," he says.

Another financial hurdle may be disputing the assessment, which at $6.5 million is more than double the sale price and resulted in $38,000 in recording fees paid to the city, says Brown. That assessment will generate more than $60,000 in real estate taxes annually, a large percentage of the $70,000 shortfall the Williamsons report they faced each year.

"That's so far out of line as to be obscene," says Voisinet, who believes the assessment should be slashed to the $1- to 2-million range, since the $3 million sale price included not only the building but also the business.

City assessor Roosevelt Barbour was out of the office at a conference and had not returned the Hook's calls at posting time, and Mayor Dave Norris says city council does not hold sway over assessments.

"As a general rule, we keep a wall between between politicians and the assessor's office so as not to politicize the assessments," says Norris. "However," he notes, "the property owner has a right to challenge the assessment, and I would assume that Mr. Brown has every intention to do so. None of the viable offers came anywhere close to $6 million, which makes you wonder whether the assessment needs to be appealed."

Brown, he believes, "will probably have a good case."

While the city isn't actually putting any money toward the deal, Norris says City officials have begun negotiations to lease the Mall space in front of the rink for use as a caf© just as it does for various restaurants.

"Part of the agreement is that he would spruce up the landscaping and patio space around there," says Norris. "I think that will enhance the west end of the Downtown Mall and help with some of the loitering issues we see there as well."

With such big changes in store for the Ice Park, one developer who understands the complications and frustrations of creative development applauds Brown's expanded vision.

"He is using his head to figure out how to get more use out of the building," says Oliver Kuttner, who oversaw much of the construction of the nearby Terraces, a multi-use building fronting both Water Street and the Downtown Mall. The red tape-induced delays and frustrations Kuttner faced during construction of that property 10 years ago led him to publicly swear off developing projects of any kind in Charlottesville and to turn his attention to Lynchburg, where he purchased nearly a million square feet of commercial buildings and has also been hard at work creating an ultra fuel-efficient car that may lead his company, Edison 2, to victory in the $10 million XPrize contest.

Kuttner says he sees tremendous potential in the Ice Park building, and praises Brown's creative thinking, which he says many developers lack.

"My hat's off to this guy," he says. "He's doing the right thing."

The Ice Park will be closed for the summer to allow for renovations but will reopen September 15 in time for UVA's club hockey season.


Charlottesville Ice Park - By the Numbers
Ribbon-cutting: May 1, 1996
Celebrities present: Then-mayor David Toscano and rink mascot “I.C. Bear”
Architect: Hank Browne
Size: 31,000 square feet
Prior local rinks: 1970s: Greenbrier Drive. 1980s: Inn at Afton. (And UVA Hockey Team founder Roger Voisinet was so eager to skate that in February 1986 he built a temporary rink in McIntire Park and flooded it with firehouses, but high winds ripped the plastic, and all the water leaked out before it could freeze.)
Pre-erection controversy: Needing a larger footprint than the former City parking lot he had already purchased, developer Lee Danielson pays just $10,000 for an extra 18-foot strip of land.
Post-erection controversies: the B.A.R. and City Council order Danielson's to remove some of the Victorian-style lights he installs out front. Danielson gets into a $326,000 billing disagreement with Faulconer Construction.
Typical July electric bill: $15,000
1996 development price: $3.8 million
2003 purchase price: $3.1 million
2010 purchase price: $3.0 million
Current assessment: $6.5 million.
Public skating ceased: 4:38pm on June 30, 2010
Public skating reopens: September 15, 2010
Skating rates: 1996: $5.75 skating/$2.50 rental. 2010: $8.00 skating/$1.50 rental
–sources: Lee Danielson, Roberta Williamson, newsclippings


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Great idea. I'm sure it will be successful. What many people don't realize is
the fact that good things can happen if you put your best foot forward. This is not your first rodeo.
Keep up the good work.

Smarty Pantz

Finally some good news somewhere in town. I hope this goes well and leads to other things. Maybe the landmark will be completed. Positivity is exciting when you see it for the first time in a long time....

Mr Brown seems like a nice chap. I am not sure why he elected to buy a hopeless money pit.

For one thing, there's no place for spectators there. It's not like UVa could emphasize ice hockey like they did in baseball, and really get the community behind it. I just don't see much use for it. The public isn't going to use it, unless it's 100% free to ice skate there. And even if it's 100% free, would the public use it for ice skating?

Did Mr. Brown ever pay The Hogwaller Ramblers the $500 he owed them?

What restaurants does Mr Brown own? We are so impressed with his efforts to save the hockey rink, we want to make sure to support his other ventures! We thought he owned The Upstairs, but it has closed. Thanks!

I'm so glad someone bought it. It would have been sad to see it empty. Let's hope his plan works. Then maybe the Hogwallers will get paid.

Interesting approach. Ditching the ice for half the year seems like a good idea, although I'm not sure if people will want to hold a formal dinner or wedding reception in what will always look an ice rink.

I wish him luck.

Downtown needs all the help it can get.

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Actually I bet there are a lot of people who will want to have a wedding or other large event in a space that is an ice rink specifically because that's what it is - never discount the value of being different.

TODAY IS UNREAL!!!!!! As a parent of a hockey player watching my kids struggle with the world taking away their dreams, I can't tell you how happy my family is. I hope that people in the community will unite to support this venture. For some of us this is a really important place and the mall should be really important to everyone.


Thanks Mark.

(It should be noted here that among the vast majority of Charlottesvillians, Mark is one of those terrible rich people who gets "tax cuts for the rich" from those evil republicans to destroy the planet.)

It's great to be able to express opinions here without telling other people what to type!

Yay! Thank you, thank you, thank you....I think that is really all that needs to be said

He owed the Hogwaller Ramblers $500? For what? Ice skating lessons?

Brave move Mr. Brown! Hat's off to you, thanks for saving the ice park...will be a venture to watch in the future!

Lets hope he'll be open to the Charlottesville Derby Dames possibly having a space !

wow! first the social club starts a soccer league, and now the ice park will have one.. soca finally has some competition!!

Is the compalint in the article about the taxes paid to the County or the recording fees? If the $38K in recording fees is the issue, the new owner need only present a new appraisal for the building,and the fees would be based on that appraisal. He should talk to his setlement agent.

Only in America....

as long as it is reasonably priced i'm sure....

I'm with Hugh Depayen on this. I think maybe the guy has money to burn and thinks it would be "cool" to own and run a facility like this. I think he'll lose money too and eventually move on, but in the meantime he gets the "philanthropist of the year" award from the "Charlottesville World Class City Boosters Society".
This is the sort of thing that one could make money on by shorting the stock...if it were on Wall St.

I don't owe them diddly. And if you heard 'em play you'd know they ain't worth diddly.

Help them out with the taxes city of cville
Are you suggesting that elected officials intervene in the assessment process or that the city grant the rink a tax break?

I'm not sure how either is consistent with sound management, although the latter could be done if the rink is viewed as a public benefit.

Sean, hanks for showing once more how ignorant you are everything, including tax law.

However, why people don;t think they should have to pay taxes of the rate of Reagan's years to pay for their wars is beyond me.

Just so you know, I am one of those Charlotteville residents that pays taxes. Quite a few in fact, for which I get very little in return. Same goes for my neighbors.

Big deal. Guy gets a 25% price cut and gets others to pony up and help him. Don't ever forget that he did this with one thing in mind--making money. Two years from now you'll read about his failure too. Maybe he could get the rats out of the bathroom in his other buildings?

Not sure why he bought it. Does anyone know?

Don't everyone sign up at once in a recession to hold your wedding in a former ice rink.............

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I've been to several UVA hockey games there, and think they're great. It seems like no matter what happens - even when a huge building on the mall remains an ice rink instead of a vacant building - some people will grumble on and on and rant about someone they are jealous of.

Wow, howsabout we just thank the guy for bailing the downtown mall out, and giving the teens and others something fun and harmless to do - not to mention all the hockey played there by students and old bags alike..

Can't we all agree at least on this much?

It seems to me like the rediculous tax assessment was what was causing the Williamsons to go in the hole every year.

Why did they not contest these rediculous assessments?

The public trough was a great place for city employees to feed as long as the city was able to raise tax assessments 10% and 15% every year. But this bubble burst in their face recently.

Sean, why would anybody be jealous of an ice rink?