Thin ice: Citing losses, owners to close skating rink
Lee Danielson was right–- an ice rink in Charlottesville is a money-loser. And now the latest owners of the Charlottesville Ice Park, admitting that they've seen losses that "mounted more quickly than we anticipated," reveal they will shut down the Charlottesville Ice Park later this year.
"The reality is that the Central Virginia area, while being enthusiastic about the rink to a degree, does not have enough people interested in skating often enough to support the operation," co-owner Bruce Williamson writes in a remarkably candid open letter to staff, avid skaters, and parents of young skaters.
Williamson, a lawyer, helped purchase the facility in 2003 after Danielson and co-developer Colin Rolph feuded over its viability. Despite carving off the upstairs party room as retail space (now housing the Eloise boutique), the new owners–- now consisting of Williamson and ex-wife Roberta Williamson–- point to cumulative losses which exceed $850,000 and appear headed toward the million-dollar mark.
Charlottesville's prior year-round ice rink was a corrugated shed-style structure on Greenbrier Drive which opened in 1973. With both a movie theater and the once-venerable Barnaby's pizza parlor located across the street, the Greenbrier rink–- until it closed in 1978–- was a good fit for families.
Similarly, the Charlottesville Ice Park was conceived as an entertainment nexus, but the building far surpassed its predecessor. A cupola-topped, neo-classical design by Hank Browne, the brick-clad Ice Park features an array of tall neo-Palladian windows that let passersby peer inside. The copper-roofed structure opened in 1996 with a dignitary-laden ribbon-cutting led by "I.C. Bear," the facility's mascot.
The months-later opening of the six-screen Regal Cinema (also developed by Danielson-Rolph) combined with the Mall's first auto crossing and a nearby outdoor amphitheater to bolster commerce on what had been an ailing retail district. And in an ongoing effort to extend the renaissance, City Council unveiled a $7.5 million resurfacing of the Mall last year.
Even while planning to list the building and operation for $4.1 million, Williamson explains that recent investments in sound, lighting, and a new Zamboni mean that the owners will lose money despite a purchase price of $3.1 million. The 31,000 square-foot building is currently assessed for tax purposes at $6.5 million.
Pricing it "attractively," Williamson says in a telephone interview, contributes to the likelihood that it will remain a rink, rather than getting cut up for another use, such as shops or offices. Indeed, within three hours of notifying stakeholders of the situation, Williamson says he was contacted by two individuals interested in saving skating.
"I'm delighted and encouraged," says Williamson, "and I hope it continues."
Still, buying a business that consumes copious amounts of space and electricity is no recipe for profits. The Fredericksburg Ice Park, also developed by Danielson and Rolph, got taken over by its landlord in 2005 after allegedly defaulting on its lease, and it unceremoniously closed last year, replaced by an indoor go-kart track.
The catalyst for closing the Charlottesville Ice Park is an impending lease renewal with the owners of an adjacent building that serves as office, skateshop, and food prep space. Faced with inking a five-year lease renewal, team Williamson opted to cut their losses and close the Park sometime after hosting the skating portion of a sports festival called the Coventry Commonwealth Games in June.
The closing threatens not only the hopes of hundreds of would-be Olympic figure skaters, it throws the existence of thriving hockey leagues and even the UVA Men's Hockey Team into question. Team founder Roger Voisinet hopes the community will rally to save what he considers a public asset.
"Think baseball parks and tennis courts make any money?" asks Voisinet.
The City of Charlottesville already operates two golf courses and an indoor swimming pool for public pleasure. Might it want to pick up a rink that's been credited with stimulating the economy?
Mayor Dave Norris says he finds the closing disappointing but that any City salvation would be a last resort at best.
"We'd prefer to see the private sector step in," says Norris. "We're not exactly flush with cash either."
Whatever happens, Williamson says he's glad he and Roberta stepped onto the ice seven years ago when the Park first appeared doomed to meltdown.
"We went into this business with our eyes open," Williamson writes, "and we have kept them open through the years. We have no regrets, and we are happy and proud to have made a contribution to the life of our city."
–updated 8:43am Sunday with info about Greenbrier rink.
–updated 9:18am Monday with info about Mall resurfacing and golf courses
–updated 11:33am Monday with info about the windows