The Point Mallard Ice Complex's future remains in limbo more than two years after it closed. An ice rink supporter says he wants the city to fulfill a January 2020 promise to repair it, but Decatur's elected officials don't appear eager to spend up to $1.4 million to get it operational.
Several city leaders have even suggested finding an alternative use for the complex, which has a 17,000-square-foot main area that has sat unused since the summer of 2019.
Daniel Frith, a longtime hockey enthusiast in Decatur, said he is frustrated the city hasn't developed a plan for repairs in the past two years.
“We just haven’t heard anything,” said Frith, a Decatur native who grew up playing hockey on the city's ice rinks and later coached youth players there.
“We’ve had an ice rink almost 50 years, so it needs to be repaired,” Frith said.
The current council hasn't moved forward on ice rink repair in the first 10 months of its term, and there will never be frozen water there again if Councilman Hunter Pepper’s stance is adopted by the council.
“The ice rink needs to be torn down,” Pepper said. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
The city closed the ice rink in June 2019 when a routine inspection found the pipes used to freeze the water had collapsed. Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake has said repair estimates range from $1 million to $1.4 million, depending on the level of renovation.
Pepper, who began his first term in November, said his opposition to repairing the rink is based on its financial performance. A previous council threatened to close the rink when it lost close to $233,000 in fiscal 2013. Lake told the council in 2019 that the rink lost $31,000 in its best year and losses were averaging close to $150,000 yearly.
“The fact is it doesn’t make any money,” Pepper said. “It’s not a good investment. We just don’t get any return on investment. I just don’t see why we should spend the money on the repairs and staffing the place.”
The consistent operating deficits at the rink, which opened in 2000, generated a heated debate among council members after its closure two years ago. The city previously had an outdoor rink that opened in 1974.
The debate led rink supporters, mainly parents of youth hockey players and ice skaters, to attend a town hall meeting in January 2020. They pleaded for the council to save the facility.
“We planned for 100 chairs, and throughout that meeting we doubled them,” Frith said. “We had great participation, and there was 100% in favor of repairing the ice rink. We had no opposition.”
Paige Bibbee, council president at the time, declared the ice rink would be repaired, but the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020 and the municipal election occurred last summer with four new council members elected. Bibbee was one of two incumbents who lost reelection. The new council took office Nov. 2.
“We were led to believe that night that it was not going away,” Frith said of the Jan. 14, 2020, meeting.
He told the council at a recent work session that he believes he can help the ice complex financially. Frith said the rink should open only 5½ months during the winter season.
But Lake said at the time of the shutdown that reopening it on a partial schedule would still result in an estimated annual loss of $36,000, and this doesn’t include the cost of rink repairs.
Councilman Billy Jackson was against Decatur building an indoor ice rink 21 years ago, and he’s not in favor of repairing it. He said he didn’t think the ice rink could financially sustain itself and this has been the case.
Jackson called the ice complex “a drain on Point Mallard’s budget. I just don’t think the Decatur population will ever come around to ice skating and hockey,” Jackson said.
Mayor Tab Bowling said the ice complex loses too much money, and he’s not sure there’s as much city support for it as Frith claims.
The mayor said he favors looking for other ways to use the building such as Lake’s proposal made during the 2019 discussion on the ice complex’s fate.
Lake proposed turning the building into a multi-use complex that would host sports like volleyball, indoor soccer and offseason baseball and softball training.
The building, which has 2,000 square feet of meeting and hospitality rooms in addition to its main space, would then become an event center that could host conferences, meetings, trade shows, weddings and proms.
Lake estimated the initial startup cost of a multi-use center would be about $2 million. He estimated it would make $111,400 in the first year, with the total profits in a five-year period reaching $914,260.
Councilman Carlton McMasters, whose District 3 includes a majority of the ice rink supporters, said he is torn over the issue. He said he would like to repair the rink because “it would be a great asset” to the city, but he just doesn’t see the repairs occurring anytime soon.
“A lot of people in District 3 want it fixed, but I know the city has a lot of other expenses,” McMasters said.
McMasters said he also knows the city has a lot of potential financial issues to address like police officer and firefighter pay, paving and raises for city employees.
Council President Jacob Ladner and Councilman Kyle Pike agreed that the ice complex building doesn’t need to sit empty except for the offices used by the Parks and Recreation Department.
“We need to have a conversation with (Lake) and others,” Ladner said. “I hate that it’s sitting empty. We do need to do something, so we need to make a decision on what that needs to be.”
McMasters said the Point Mallard Ice Complex “fiscally doesn’t make sense, but it’s not always possible to put a money value on recreation amenities.”
Frith said he would like to see the ice rink repairs included in the bond issue the City Council is considering as part of plans for an $8 million Sixth Avenue streetscape project.
Frith said a potential ice rink repair hasn’t been mentioned by City Council members while they have discussed proposed projects like a new central recreation center, tennis court repairs, the Sixth Avenue streetscape, litter pickup and mowing, a new fire station, upgrades to the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market, paving and many more.
“I think it’s great that you’re considering these things,” Frith told the council at the recent work session. “I know you’re not tied to what the previous council decided, but what is a little different about this project is our city came out to support (ice complex repairs).
“If we’re not going to talk about it with this bond issue, I think we should consider it with future bond issues.”
Pike said the council needs to figure out what to do with the ice complex. He said he is open to all options.
“It’s tough to lose the kind of money it did,” Pike said. “Maybe the amount it loses could be reduced but it’s likely it won’t ever make money. I consider it a quality-of-life asset, so the question is, is it worth the annual loss of revenue?”