Ice, ice, maybe: Can a Park deal be struck before it's too late?
In spite of increasingly urgent negotiations with an unnamed "interested party," the owners of the Charlottesville Ice Park say they're still planning to close on June 30, leading some to fear the effect of another vacant behemoth on the Mall's economy.
"Time is rather short now," says Ice Park co-owner Roberta Williamson, noting that the sale of the Ice Park's large equipment, including the ice-smoothing Zamboni, would need to happen quickly since buyers of such tools typically want to make purchases before fall.
Seven years ago, Williamson and then husband Bruce Williamson and two other partners (both of whom have since bowed out) purchased the Ice Park in a widely lauded move even as skeptics wondered how they could do something the original owners, developers Colin Rolph and Lee Danielson, had been unable to do: turn a profit.
"This is not a facility that's doomed to lose money," insisted Bruce Williamson when the purchase was first announced in May 2003. "We looked at the numbers."
Unfortunately, his prediction of financial success didn't come true.
"We spent $850,000 keeping it open over the last five years," says Roberta Williamson, noting that the asking price of $4.1 million–- announced in February–- "doesn't cover the expenditure that we made."
She and Bruce (who divorced several years ago but remain amicable business partners), quickly understood that the venture would be difficult to sustain.
"We realized we'd have to brace ourselves and spend our own money in order to keep it open," she says. "In that way, we feel it's been a donation to the community, in particular to asthmatic kids and adults crazed enough to play hockey into their 50s."
But their doing so indefinitely is not an option.
"We're not indefinitely wealthy," she says. "We have probably much more limited means than people think."
Since the sale was announced, numerous parties expressed initial interest in purchasing the building and the business, but things like a $15,000 July electric bill have deterred many would-be buyers. But not all.
Roger Voisinet, founder and former coach of the UVA men's ice hockey club team, wants a chance.
"I've been skating my whole life," says Voisinet, who adds that he and the team will be "crushed" by the closure. In fact, Voisinet and three partners, whose identities he declines to reveal, got as far as writing a "letter of intent" expressing interest in making a lease or purchase deal with the Williamsons. Both parties signed confidentiality agreements and cannot discuss the terms of any offer or negotiation, but in mid-May Voisinet described himself as hopeful for a "win-win."
On May 26, however, Bruce Williamson made it clear that a compromise had not been reached.
"We are not negotiating with Roger Voisinet," he says, when asked about an "interested party" he mentions but whom he declines to identify.
Could it be UVA? University spokesperson Carol Wood says no.
"Given the economy and the budget and everything, we would not be interested in acquiring it," says Wood.
That doesn't stop Voisinet and members of the school's men's and women's club hockey teams from wishing the school–- which erected 134 buildings during its outgoing president's term–- would step in to help save the ice park.
"Ideally, UVA would be more supportive," says fourth year women's hockey player Rebecca Moreno, who says the school does chip in on equipment and a portion of ice rental time–- at $185 per hour–- but that players still shell out more than $400 in dues to cover the remaining expenses.
"Maybe one day, down the road," Moreno says of the notion of UVA buying the rink. "But right now we don't see it as a possibility."
Voisinet says if the rink closes he fears for the entire Mall economy since, by his estimation, the ice park brings 150,000 annual visitors downtown. And he believes the specialized nature of the building, along with its urban location, will make any retrofit cost-prohibitive.
"The Mall is going to be left with a dark building for five to 20 years," Voisinet says.
Real estate agent Jim Duncan agrees, at least partially, with that grim assessment.
"I think it has the potential to be vacant for a couple of years," he says, adding that a vacancy of that size with the large brick plaza in front creates a potential new headache for the City.
"I think from a loitering standpoint it could be a real negative," says Duncan. "Increased police patrols may be required."
Mayor Dave Norris joins the lament chorus.
"I don't think any downtown area would want to have a space that large sit there boarded up and vacant for months and years on end," says Norris. But that doesn't mean he's ready to push for government intervention.
"I would be open to any conversation about how we can be involved in keeping it in operation," he says, "but it needs to be a private-sector-led effort, not the city stepping in to do the deal."
The Charlottesville Ice Park isn't the only Virginia rink to struggle financially.
The Fredericksburg Ice Park closed its doors in June 2009 after its owner, the Rappaport Company–- which took over after original owner Lee Danielson allegedly defaulted on the lease–- announced the rink was losing too much money. It has since reopened as an indoor go-kart track.
Neither the Williamsons nor any of the skaters interviewed want to see that happen here, and Bruce Williamson offers some small measure of hope for salvation before June 30 arrives.
"As before, there are some prospects," says Williamson, "and I think that one of them might be quite realistic. We have received no offer, but we hope that we will receive an offer between now and then."
Shortly before this issue went to press, Williamson alerted the Hook that the owners had received a letter of intent, their third but "it's the only one that has any legs," she says. "It's sort of exciting."
Correction: Roger Voisinet is a former coach of the UVA men's hockey team
Updated 2:37pm May 28: clarified urgency of zamboni sale.
Updated 3:55pm, May 31 with info about the new letter of intent.