Hockey hero: Local man saves the Ice Park!
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.
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