Letter To The Editor: Our Plan For A New Rink Worked But Town Lacked The ‘Political Will’ To Get It Done

Photo: Rendering of the Belmont Youth Hockey’s proposal to the town for a new rink.

To the editor:

On Nov. 10, the Belmontonian reported that eight months after receiving a single proposal for the development of a new skating facility, the town of Belmont determined the proposal was not economically feasible. While certainly convenient to blame the bidder, it was not true; the proposal submitted by Belmont Youth Hockey Association to develop a new facility was professionally vetted and fully financially feasible.  

The deeper story is that the town issued a Request for Proposal that was never feasible. The RFP asked for more square footage of programming than currently exists in the designated development space west of Harris Field. In an area that currently houses the White Field House, one rink (the Skip), a soccer field, a softball field and facility parking – the town’s RFP asked for all of these to be maintained and improved while adding an additional half rink, baseball field, shot put and discus area and 90 additional parking spaces required by the new high school.   

Once the review committee realized they needed more space to meet their own RFP requirements, the town made the decision to pass on the opportunity to adjust their expectations to make the project feasible. The town lacked the political will to address the need for incremental parking for the high school in an alternate location.   

The decision by the Select Board to pass on the only proposal caps nearly 10 years of effort by Belmont Youth Hockey to address a critical issue: the town continues to operate a facility that is structurally and mechanically unsound. By passing, the town has eliminated any potential for a public/private partnership. Belmont is no longer a credible partner. The town wasted the time, resources, and diligent efforts of a consortium of financial, construction, design, operating firms, and individual volunteers all collaborating to solve a pressing safety and viability concern.  

The positive news is that the path forward is now clear. By failing the RFP process, the town must move forward on its own. It’s time to allocate and approve the approximately $15-$20 million needed to rebuild the Skip and the White Field House and to do so as part of an integrated plan to develop the space west of Harris Field so that the pending development of the field space is not squandered. Continuing to deny the lack of structural integrity of a complex that services several thousand kids and adults each year is not a responsible option.

Bob Mulroy

Belmont Youth Hockey

Rink Sinks: New Skating Facility Proposal ‘Not Economically Viable’

Photo: The Skip has opened for the season.

On the day the town opened the 40-year-old plus Viglirolo Skating Rink for the season, the Select Board heard that a long sought after replacement for the current dilapidated facility came to a close after the only candidate to reply to the ambitious proposal could not make the project financially feasible.

“I wish I had better news to report,” said Tom Caputo who was the Select Board’s liaison to the town’s effort to create a one-and-a-half ice sheet rink to the west of the current facility known as the “Skip.”

“But the consensus of the group [of town and school officials] who worked on this is we don’t have an economically viable public/private partnership at this point,” said Caputo during the board’s ultramarathon of a meeting [four hours and 26 minutes] held Monday, Nov. 9

This comes as Recreation Department personnel who run the rink state that it is only a matter of time before a catastrophic mechanical failure involving the pipes and compressors – some original underground equipment from the 1970s that are no longer being manufactured – will require the facility to be closed for good.

“It’s running. That’s the key every year, we just hope it gets up and going,” said Recreation Director and Assistant Town Administrator Jon Marshall.

“But in the near future, we’re not going to be lucky. That’s the challenge,” said Marshal.

First proposed in September 2015, a long sought-after new rink was envisioned to be private/public partnership in which the school department would lease a portion of its land west of Harris Field to a private developer/rink manager at not cost for at least 25 years. In exchange, the Belmont High ice hockey teams would practice and hold games for free as well as allow for free recreational skating while the rink manager would rent the space to hockey leagues and private functions.

A detailed request for proposal was developed with input from the school committee and district, the town and neighbors during at times laborious negotiations. While there was some interest in the proposal, only one team headed by Belmont Youth Hockey put their hat in the ring to move to more substantial discussions with the town.

A tall order that failed

According to Caputo, what doomed the talks directed at replacing the ancient rink was how the RFP “was pretty highly constrained” to the developer. Not only was the town seeking for them to fund, construct and operate a multi-sheet facility, it required more than 100 parking spaces that would be linked to the high school and construct three high school playing and practice fields while providing aforementioned free playing and game time for varsity and junior varsity teams.

“That was a tall order, to say the least,” acknowledged Caputo.

While the two sides negotiated over the summer and resolved many conflicts facing the proposal, at the end of the day, the Youth Hockey team could not made their proposal work financially if it had to meet the space requirements in the RFP, especially the parking component, as well as providing a large chunk of no cost ice time to the school department.

“We just could not come up with an economically viable project that would work for the applicate that they could get funded and be confident to make payments on,” said Caputo. In fact, the town believes as currently written, the RFP as outlined and as constrained is such that there is not a viable project that will work.

Under the column titled Next Steps, Caputo said there is interest in adjusting the long list of town requirements for the project and modify the RFP.

“This is not unusual … to have a couple of rounds with the RFP before you get it right,” said Caputo. “There is creative ideas around parking and maybe not have free access to ice time that can be explored.”

But Caputo admitted that some of those creative adjustments that are “kicking around” is that “they are so far from the RFP that was created that they are probably outside the bounds of what we can reasonably negotiate.”

In addition, Marshall has begun the first steps in better understanding what it would take to renovate or rebuild the current location.

Select Board Member Adam Dash said that many of the required changes needed in the RFP to spark interest from a private developer would be “no gos” on the town side as the RFP required a great deal of negotiations with the school district and residents.

Dash also derided any thoughts of refurbishing the “Skip,” describing it as a “disaster.”

“What would it cost to build a one sheet of ice rink? God knows when we could get the money to do it,” said Dash. “This one is gonna die probably before we can get there. It’s not a good situation.”

School Committee Says ‘Yes’ On Interest To Host New Rink Along Concord Avenue

Photo: A new rink would likely be built in this location near the present rink (in photo).

The pieces are beginning to fall into place pointing to a new skating rink coming to Belmont in the next two years.

And while there are a pair of locations where the replacement for the ancient “Skip” Viglirolo rink is expected to be sited, there is growing support over the past month pointing to Belmont School District property along Concord Avenue across from the Underwood Pool as the likely spot, beating out a facility at the former incinerator site on upper Concord Avenue on the Lexington town line.

In an important step that would keep the rink adjacent to Harris Field, the Belmont School Committee vote unanimously at its Tuesday, Dec. 19, meeting to proceed with a Request for Proposal (RFP), which will solicit proposals through a bidding process.

“This is a town project, not just a schools project,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan at the meeting.

The School Committee Chair Susan Burgess-Cox said while moving forward with a RFP, the committee would be open to all suggestions and comments from the public on developing the site which will have its chance to express its opinion at a January community meeting on the future of the incinerator site that will impact the rink development.

While hardly the size of a new public/private venture in New York City that will house nine skating rinks, Belmont Youth Hockey in a presentation before the School Committee in April proposed a space with an ice sheet-and-a-half (with the half ice sheet covered for nine months and used by spring, summer and fall youth and high school sports teams) with recreational open space, an indoor track and locker rooms that can be used by indoor and outdoor sports teams.

(A public/private rink to replace the aged “Skip” is not a recent concept as it has been talk about around town since 2015.)

While no decision has been made by either the School Committee – which owns the property – and the Board of Selectmen which has final say what will go on the incinerator land, recently presented analysis of the two locations appearing to give the clear edge to the school’s site.

At the school committee meeting Tuesday, Phelan presented a pro and con comparison of the two sites. Noting that the 1970s-era “Skip” is well-passed its useful working life and is only kept running with “McGyver”-style hacks to the ice-making machinery, Phelan said a new rink built through a public/private partnership – in past schemes, Belmont Youth Hockey would manage the rink that is constructed on land provided free of charge by the town or schools – would provide local access to ice time for the community and the Belmont High School ice hockey teams. Under this scenario, the direct cost to town ratepayers would be zero.

As for the pro’s of the high school site, it would be convenient for the school’s teams, it would increase locker space for boys and girls teams who play at Harris Field, it would not need state regulatory approval and just town zoning permits and there would finally be on-site parking as opposed to using  Concord Avenue and several side streets.

“There’s a nice energy of uses if it was on the high school site that would complement the new fields,” said Phelan.

One big con would be the potential loss of playing field space during and after the building is completed, additional traffic and the possible congestion created as the rink will be constructed while the 7-12 school is being built less than a quarter mile away “would be challenging,” said Phelan. 

The incinerator site does have its pro’s as in less traffic impact on the local neighborhood, doesn’t interfere with new school’s construction site and there is enough land to build a rink with two full-size ice sheets.

But the cons at the incinerator are steep: school teams would need to take one bus to and from practice at a cost of approximately $400 daily or $2,000 each week for up to 14-16 weeks. Because there are state-issued conditions on what can be placed at the incinerator location and environmental issues, it is expected to take up to four years before the first shovel is put into the ground, which will also require the town to pick up maintenance costs and likely repairs at the old rink until construction is completed. There is the issue of capping the toxic landfill site which will cost the town approximately $3.5 to $4 million, an amount a non-profit rink organization would find daunting to help pay and would force up rental fees. Finally, there are concerns that a foundation for the building and ice sheet on ground that is infill and close to wetlands could be prohibitively expensive.

While a number of committee members voiced some concern about the loss of fields for high school sports teams (depends what the winning RFP bid specifies) and would a new rink replace the locker room space lost when the White Field House is demolished (“yes,” said Phelan), they also felt the added transportation costs and far-off location of an incinerator-located rink were less than attractive.

By the end of the presentation, the committee was ready to put the school district’s stake in the ground for new rink. But while interested in building on the property, the district and committee “[are] not yet committed to doing so,” until the public process is completed, said member Andrea Prestwich.


With Clock Running, Selectmen Calls A Public Meeting On Incinerator’s Future

Photo: The entrance to the former Belmont incinerator site.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

With the clock now running on the future of the town’s former incinerator location near the Lexington/Belmont line, the Belmont Board of Selectmen will look to residents to supply some ideas on the site’s future.

“We will need to open it up to the public,” said Adam Dash, Selectmen’s chair. “All of them are clever and really good, but we can only do so much on that site.” Dash added he sees public meetings – much like those held last year on trash collection – sometime in June to gather resident input. The meeting will likely take place on June 9 at the Board’s first scheduled meeting at the conclusion of annual Town Meeting. 

When the town took ownership of the site from the state 11 months ago – the deed for the property was transferred from the state on May 17, 2017 – the state required the town to construct a mitigation plan to remediate the site of contaminated soil and groundwater by “capping” the land polluted by ash produced in the burning of garbage. That work will need to be completed in the next few years.

The 16-acre property is located on upper Concord Avenue and the Rock Meadow Conservation about 1,500 feet from the Lexington town line. Opened in 1959, the incinerator operated until 1975, then becoming the town’s transfer station for decades before the state took control of the land. The Belmont Department of Public Works currently utilizes the site for equipment storage, leaf composting and the placement of debris.

As of fiscal 2016, Belmont had $3.5 million in a reserve account to clean the property.

Suggestions for future use include a dog park, solar farm, bike and recreation path, an expanded DPW operation, and even a marijuana farm. One use discussed in the past few months has been a new town skating rink. 

At its last meeting, the selectmen and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin felt that before capping the site, a specific post-closure usage needs to be decided rather than moving immediately with full site remediation. What will be placed on the site will determine what type of cap is used; a passive recreational use will require a less intrusive barrier than one supporting a building.

“Because if you use all the money to cap it, you won’t have anything left if you want to do a recreational type of use,” said Garvin. 

In the past month, Selectman Mark Paolillo said he and Garvin had met with Belmont Youth Hockey Association which is lining up funding for a proposed facility on the Belmont High School site, to ask if the skating rink “could work” on upper Concord Avenue. 

“It does align with what we are doing at the High School site, so we have to start thinking about this sooner than later,” said Paolillo, who believes the rink could be located at the site, but legal matters remain on whether the facility would qualify as a municipal use which is allowed under the deed. 

School Committee OK’s Land Survey for Possible Rink/Rec Center

Photo: The varsity softball field.

The promise of a new ice skating rink and multi-purpose recreation center serving Belmont’s residents and sports teams took a baby step forward as the Belmont School Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday, Dec. 1 to allow a survey of school-owned property near Belmont High School by the non-profit seeking to build the facility.

The decision gives permission for the Belmont Youth Hockey Association to hire a firm to perform evaluation work on school property currently occupied by the Belmont High Varsity Softball field to determine if the surface is suitable for the construction of a recreation center and ice surface. 

“It’s a small step forward, but it is forward,” said Bob Mulroy, who has become the association’s point person for the project, that would include an NHL-sized skating rink, a second “half” skating surface that transforms into a field house for half the year, modern locker rooms, a community fitness center, and many more amenities.

According to Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, the land survey will allow the association to return to the committee with a more detailed and concrete feasibility study. 

The $6.5 million complex – which would include off-street, on-site parking – would be overseen by a non-profit public/private partnership that would incorporate a wide array of town departments, the school committee, youth hockey and funders on the board.

In exchange for the land to build the center, Belmont schools, and high school teams will have use of the facilities at no cost. 

Opinion: A Privately Funded Rink the Fiscally-Responsible Choice

By Ellen Schreiber

I’ve read several columns and postings about the new Belmont Youth Hockey skating rink proposal that are missing key information.

As a member of the Warrant Committee, charged with analyzing the town budget, I believe a new, privately funded rink is the only fiscally responsible choice for Belmont. (Note: The Warrant Committee has not reviewed the proposal. As an individual, I attended the School Committee discussion.)                                                        

Here is the information I heard at the rink presentation that is missing from the public debate. 

1. Privately Funded: Building a new rink would be entirely privately funded by generous citizens. No budget impact. No tax increase. This money is not available for other town projects and would not take away from other town priorities.

2. Rink failure: Engineering analysis confirmed that the only remaining compressor and piping are on the verge of failing. Systemic failure cannot be cheaply fixed and is at the bottom of the town’s capital spending priority list. 

3. Budget Impact: When the rink breaks, the school budget will incur more than $200,000 annually to rent ice time for Belmont High School hockey teams. Practically, there are no rinks in communities surrounding Belmont with available after school hours, so that $200,000 recurring budget item would likely yield practice times as late as 10 p.m.

4. Business Plan: Donors would loan the money to build the rink and absorb 100 percent of the risk, not the town. Rentals would fund loan repayment, which is well understood because Belmont Youth Hockey currently pays market rent for 75 percent of the ice time, which would continue.

5. Budget Savings: The Belmont budget would no longer be responsible for rink operations, maintenance or repairs; new rink operations will fund them.

6. Ownership: The rink is a school-owned facility, and the new site would remain school-owned property.

7. New High School: The rink would move to the western edge of school property. This removes a physical barrier in the middle of school land, which creates more options for BHS site planning.

8. Timing: This project could be completed in two years, long before a new high school could be built. It would not get in the way.

9. No Loss of Fields: The old rink site would be converted into new, better fields to replace the old softball and practice fields, with no net loss of fields. Community Preservation Act money could fund the field conversion. CPA funds must be used for recreation, open space, affordable housing or historic preservation and cannot be used for schools, libraries, or police stations.

10. BHS Hockey Teams: Rink failure would be devastating to the high school program – rental costs are high, rink time is scarce, and practices would be late-night. With a new rink, BHS teams would continue to get first-choice ice times for free.

11. Belmont Youth Hockey: BYHA is leading this project to create a modern, reliable rink to serve better the town. They would receive no financial consideration and would continue to pay market rates for rental.

I’ve done a lot of fundraising. I’ve led a lot of volunteer projects. This level of private contribution is rare. Belmont is lucky to have donors and volunteers willing to make this happen.

I believe that Belmont should move forward with this opportunity as soon as the necessary details can be worked out.

Ellen Schreiber is a Town Meeting Member, a member of the Warrant Committee, secretary of the Underwood Pool Building Committee, co-chair of the Joey’s Park rebuild and hockey mom.

School Committee Gives Initial Nod to Proposed New Rink/Rec Center

Photo: Bob Mulroy.

The Belmont School Committee gave its initial “OK” Tuesday night, Sept. 8, for a youth sports organization to begin the process that could result in the construction of a new multi-purpose town recreation center. 

“We are not just looking at our needs, but … of the entire community,” said Bob Mulroy, who gave the presentation for Belmont Youth Hockey Association, which is leading the project that would include an NHL-sized skating rink, a second “half” skating surface that would transform into a field house for half the year, modern locker rooms, a community fitness center, and many more amenities.

While the proposal has received high marks from public and elected officials in August when the Board of Selectmen was presented with the proposal, those deciding the fate of the project are taking a long-view of the process. 

“I see this as the first step … I don’t see this as a significant substance discussion but just to understand what the proposal is before us,” said School Committee Chair Laurie Slap, as the committee members voted the proposal was “worth exploring.”

The $6.5 million complex – which would include off-street, on-site parking – would be overseen by a non-profit public/private partnership that would incorporate a wide array of town departments, the school committee, youth hockey and funders on the board.

In exchange for the land to build the center, Belmont schools, and high school teams will have use of the facility at no cost. 

Both sides acknowledge the first significant hurdle to clear is where to locate the center. Under BYHA’s ideal scenario, the complex would be built on the current home of the Belmont High softball team abutting the Mobile service station and across Concord Avenue from the Belmont Public Library.

But that is the same site where in May 2013 the school committee rejected a request by the Board of Library Overseers to place a new $19.5 million town library, actually killing the hopes of supporters for more than a decade.

The alternative location would place the recreation center on the existing rink footprint, across Concord Avenue from the Underwood Pool.

“We are aware that fields are crucial in town, and we are not looking to reduce that [amount],” said Mulroy.

The proposal would both help find solutions to real recreational needs – providing adequate changing space and locker rooms for all sports teams – in Belmont as well as replace the 45-year-old “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink, which Mulroy described as “toast.”

The rink, with gaps in the walls, few comforts, and antiquated mechanical systems, has past its useful life “long ago,” said Mulroy.

Belmont Youth Hockey is the rinks biggest customer, taking three-quarters of the available rental time.

Mulroy told the meeting the cost to renovate the current structures to current code would be the same as building a new recreation center. 

Under the current blueprint, the proposed center would include:

  • A 25,000 sq.-ft. NHL-sized rink (approximately 200 feet by 85 foot).
  • A half-sized skating rink used for seven months then transformed into a field house for tennis, soccer and community events.
  • Six modern year-round locker rooms.
  • A 5,000 sq.-ft. health club/gym open to the public.
  • Exercise classrooms.
  • A skate shop.
  • Concession stand.
  • Meeting rooms.
  • Athletic offices.
  • A trainers/medical center.

The proposed building would cost between $8 and $9 million, with construction priced between $6 to $7 million financed with private debt. The cost of field renovations would be $1 million with the funds coming from a Community Preservation Committee grant and the final $1 million used to outfit the new space and purchase equipment.

The reasoning behind adding a second, smaller rink to the NHL-sized sheet of ice is financial, said Mulroy. Under economic models of similar existing arenas in New England, Mulroy said the Recreation Center will take in just over $1 million in income annually with expenses of $600,000 for a net “profit” of just under $500,000 a year. 

Mulroy told the Belmontonian after the meeting that several funding sources are prepared to step forward to provide the debt financing. 

Mulroy said he anticipated the planning and design stage – when the details on financing, governance, and zoning will be hammered out – to take a year with construction an additional nine months. He believes the entire project will take 24 months to complete.

From the town’s perspective, the private/public venture is a win/win on many fronts; it is financially sustainable without requiring town funding to run, it takes an enormous expense off of the town’s “to-do” list of capital projects, and it provides Belmont with a new facility at limited cost.

While amenable to the project, School Committee members joined Board of Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady that many details on financing, governance and a myriad of issues “will need to be flushed out over time” before final approval is granted. 

Member Elyse Shuster suggested that the school committee use the proposal to begin a discussion on the “whole [Belmont High School] campus” as an integrated whole. 

“I would encourage us to think about integrating the [the high school’s Higgenbottom Pool] and making it a true recreational facility,” she said.

Belmont Youth Hockey Girls Opening for the Bruins Friday

The Belmont Youth Hockey Association’s Under 12 (U12) Mauraders Girls’ Hockey team is traveling all the way to Providence, RI to opening for the Providence Bruins, the top development team for the NHL’s Boston Bruins, at the Dunkin’ Donuts Arena today, Friday, Oct. 3.

The Marauders, coached by Peter Noone, will face the Walpole U12 team at 5 p.m., prior to the P-Bruins 7 p.m. preseason match with the Springfield Falcons.

The Mauraders’ will open their regular season this Sunday, Oct. 5, against nemesis Arlington.