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.”

Bidding Opens For New Skating Rink, Decision On Winning Offer In May

Photo: A new rink will replace the five decade old “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink.

In the same week the Belmont’s Skip Viglirolo Skating Rink was forced to shut down due to “unseasonably warm” temperatures – in January(!)– the town and schools OKed opening the bidding process to build a next-generation private/public partnership skating facility on school property west of Harris Field.

“This is actually a big moment in the development of this project,” said Jeffery Wheller, Belmont’s senior planner before a joint meeting of the Select Board and School Committee as each group voted unanimously to approve the release of the final version of the request for proposal on Jan. 15.

“Hopefully after tonight’s presentation we’ll get some exciting responses to the project,” he said.

The town’s Community Development Office also released a seven-month timeline of important milestones the RFP will undergo before a deal is struck.

  • Wednesday, Jan. 15: RFP is released to the public.
  • Wednesday, Jan. 29: Site visit and preliminary meeting with interested parties.
  • Tuesday, Feb. 25: Select Board/School Committee discuss review process.
  • Friday, March 20: Proposals are due.
  • Tuesday, April 7: School Committee/Select Board review top proposals.
  • Tuesday, April 28: School Committee/Select Board interview best proposals.
  • Tuesday, May 12: School Committee/Select Board selects the winning proposal.
  • Monday, June 1: On the second night of the 2020 annual Town Meeting, a Special Town Meeting will be convened to vote: 1). To lease school property to a private developer(s) and 2). amend the definition in the town’s zoning bylaw on municipal recreational uses.
  • Tuesday, June 9: School Committee awards a contract to the winning proposal.
  • Between June 10 to July 8: School Committee negotiates a long-term lease with the selected developer(s).

The town is predicting the design and site plan review process managed by the Planning Board will take between six to nine months. Only when that is completed can the developer seek a building permit.

The existing rink – known as “The Skip” – will remain in operation until the new facility is up and running and will be taken down by the town unless the area that the rink currently occupies will is needed to fulfill the town’s programmatic needs.

The RFP is fairly similar to earlier drafts, although a proposed tennis complex has been removed from the proposal.

The main features of the RFP include:

  • The facility – which may be expanded to be a year round operation – will need to share the land west of the existing rink and Harris Field with three athletic fields, a pair of throwing circles and 110 parking spaces (90 reserved for students on school days) that will be built at town expense.
  • The facility – with a maximum height of two-and-a-half stories – can contain a full-size and one half-size sheet of ice. The building will have at least 300 seats for spectators, public restrooms, a skate shop and food concessions.
  • The building will have a minimum of four locker rooms with two containing 35 lockers for boys’ and girls’ varsity and the other two with 45 lockers for the junior varsity teams. Each room will have a coaches room, showers and storage. The facility will also have a refs room, an athletic trainers room and wet area.
  • Two locker rooms will also be used by high school fall and spring sports, one each for the home and visiting teams. The restrooms will also have outdoor accessibility.
  • The town would “prefer” a zero-net energy facility i.e. avoiding fossil fuels to power the site.
  • The high school’s ice hockey teams will have four consecutive hours of ice time Monday to Saturday, during the 15-week season. Games will be played over two hours. Belmont Youth Hockey will have hours and times that meet its growing needs as will programs linked to the town’s Recreation Department.
  • The hours of operation will be negotiated with the winning bidder and the town.

Each candidate will be evaluated and ranked based on a matrix in which the town will grade the four comparative evaluation criteria the town has selected.

For example, those bidders that can show experience designing and building a significant number of similar rinks that have been successful and with similar goals as Belmont is seeking will receive a “very advantageous” ranking; those who have built only “some” facilities will be seen as being “advantageous” while those with no experience constructing rinks will be deemed “non-advantageous.”

Public Meeting On New Rink Set (Sort Of) For Jan. 22

Photo: A new facility will replace the “Skip” Viglirolo rink adjacent to Harris Field.

The public will get its opportunity to listen and speak up on a new skating rink as a tentative date was presented at the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday, Jan. 8.

“Now is the time to take the next step” on the future of a possible public/private rink which could be located on school department property, said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, as he proposed the committee to request the Belmont Board of Selectmen to conduct a joint meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The meeting will likely take place at the Chenery Middle School.

But the date is tentative as it may change if more members of both groups can attend at an alternative date and time.

Phelan said the first part of the meeting will be a listing of the pros and cons of placing the rink along Concord Avenue across from the Underwood Pools or at the closed incinerator location on upper Concord Avenue near the Lexington town line, as well as an explanation of the RFP – request for proposal – process.

The meeting will then become an open forum for the public to participate and “can have some dialogue” that could influence what will be included as public benefits and what it will expect from a new rink design including parking and traffic access, said Phelan.

At Monday’s, Jan 7, Board of Selectmen meeting, member Tom Caputo – the board’s liaison to the rink discussions – said while two locations remain in the running, past discussions and analysis of the upper Concord Avenue site by an environmental consultant revealed the incinerator parcel “might not be the best site” for a building housing a rink as it would be “more challenging” to build on ground that first needs to be capped.

In addition, a rink could not be built at the incinerator site for up to five years as the land will be used as a staging area for the construction of the new 7-12 school building.

Phelan said if the school committee – which last month agreed to move forward towards a possible acceptance of a rink– votes to accept an RFP utilizing school property, it will advantageous that “everything is ready to go” involving the project such as having a partner selected and a list of public benefits written out when a proposal is presented to Town Meeting in May.

While the RFP has yet to be written or placed out for a bid, the leading contender to run the facility is Belmont Youth Hockey which has been guiding  the effort to build a replacement for the “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink adjacent to Harris Field for the better part of a decade. It has released draft architectural designs and a list of public amenities such as locker rooms that can be used by home and away teams playing at Harris Field.

The site will be constructed as a public/private partnership in which the school department land would be leased at no cost for 30 years to the entity running the rink with specific language in the RFP requiring an allotment of time for youth hockey, both high school teams, and public uses. The town would be given the opportunity to take ownership of the structure at the end of the lease.

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.

Psst: Can You Keep a Secret? Private/Public Scheme to Build New Skating Rink

Photo: “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink.

It’s the worst kept secret in Belmont: a proposal to build a new private/public skating rink and field house on the site of the existing nearly half century old “Skip” Viglirolo rink and the White Field House adjacent to Harris Field off Concord Avenue.

Not that this latest news required a “spoiler” alert for its official unveiling at a big joint meeting at the Chenery Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 8, as information surrounding the proposal has leaked to the public over the summer.

According to four separate sources, the project – final cost is still to be determined but its likely several million dollars – to replace the existing structures have been on the minds of many for decades.

Now, after recent examples of private donors using their wallets and connects to successfully improve, maintain or rebuild municipal and school properties – laying down the new varsity court in the Wenner Field House being the latest – a new group has set their sights on what many consider a town asset that has seen its best days pass it by, the “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink. 

Built in 1969 during the rise of the Boston Bruins and Bobby Orr, the rink’s limitations and faults are legendary to visitors, players and parents. The physical structure was never fully constructed with heavy sheet metal side walls with gaping openings that allow both the weather – whether it is blistering cold or spring time warmth – and birds to migrate inside.

There is no heat or comfortable seating for viewers; the locker rooms are old, and the lighting is far from adequate while the only “warm up” space for spectators is the small snack room.

Editor’s note: One visitor from Calgary, Canada – no stranger to wind swept blizzard conditions – told the Belmontonian editor in 2002 there were warmer outdoor rinks in his hometown than the indoor Viglirolo rink.

But despite its threadbare condition, the rink is an asset to the town and hockey programs from beginners to high school varsity programs, providing a place to skate and practice at an affordable price. 

“Many towns would die to have its own rink,” said one

In addition, the White Field House – dedicated to a Belmont High alum who died during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 – while structurally sound, doesn’t provide space for the large number of female athletes who could use a changing area adjacent to the main athletic field.

In past documents, town officials and Capital Budgets placed the rink was one of the town’s major capital expenses that required addressing.

The sources – all who spoke on background as they promised not to reveal the proposal – said a spokesperson representing a group of residents advanced an initial proposal in early 2015 to a Financial Task Force subcommittee during the later stages of its tenure. to replace the dilapidated rink with a new structure and provide a new field house using private fund.

The initial response from town and government committees was enthusiastic yet guarded. While the outline was interesting, the group was told much more work needed to be done in both how the deal would be financed and, just as important, provide greater detail concerning the governance and use of the facility once it is built.

Recently, a dispute has been brewing in Wilmington over the Ristuccia Arena, constructed with the town’s help in the 1980s to provide access to town youth and adult hockey programs, which is accused of now catering to professional hockey teams, private school programs and elite skating clubs over local interests. 

The private group returned in late July for a formal presentation to the Belmont Board of Selectmen with representatives of town departments and the Captial Budget and Warrant committees as well as the Planning Board in attendance. 

Highlights of the proposal:

  • A new rink design will require taking some land from surrounding practice fields using by Belmont High School and youth sports programs.
  • The design of the rink and field house will allow for on-site parking, which will relieve traffic and parking congestion along Concord Avenue.
  • The town will benefit financially from the rink’s hourly rental fee that will be an income
    stream.
  • Belmont Savings Bank will take a major role in financing the proposal.

While the Selectmen, department heads and governmental committees who attended the presentation came away eager to move forward with the plan, the land on which the rink and field house reside is “owned” by the Belmont School Committee. The six-member committee will need to sign off on any proposal to see it advance from the blueprint stage.

This marks the second time the School Committee will be asked to allow land assigned to athletic fields to be used for a development; in May 2013, the committee denied a request from the Library Board of Trustees to use a small section of the same playing field for a proposed $19 million library. 

While nearly all  is enthused about the proposal, all sides decided to keep a somewhat tight lid on the plan in deference to the School Department who will have the first say about whether the proposal will work or not.

“We don’t want a repeat of the library fiasco,” said one source. 

Talks on Possible Private/Public Partnership to Rebuild Skating Rink Underway

Photo: Belmont’s ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Skating Rink.

First, the White Field House. Then, the new Underwood Pool. Next, the town’s skating rink?

After two successful public/private partnerships restored and saved a pair of town/school facilities in the past year, word is spreading that negotiations are underway for a possible collaboration between the town of Belmont and either an individual or a group to renovate the town-owned ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Skating Rink located adjacent to Harris Field at 297 Concord Ave.

“There are talks, but that’s all I know,” said Belmont Town Administrator David Kale after Wednesday’s meeting of the Warrant Committee, adding that he does not know who is the outside party who reached out to Belmont officials.

People in the sports community and town government have echoed Kale’s refrain: someone or a group has shown interest in renovating the rink, the condition of which is, at best, threadbare.

But other than acknowledging there are discussions, those in the know are keeping tight-lipped.

There is little debate the skating rink, owned by the town and run through the Recreation Department, is badly in need of a complete renovation.

Built in 1971 during the height of popularity of the Boston Bruins and their star, Bobby Orr, the nearly 29,000 sq.-ft. rink was originally an open air facility until the early 1980s when it was enclosed. The rink is home to the Belmont High School Marauders Hockey teams and Belmont Youth Hockey. The rink is also available to residents for recreational use.

 

The unheated rink is known for its steel panel walls with gaping openings that allow the frigid outdoor temperatures to seep inside. While many hockey players say the ice benefits from the blast of cold outdoor air making for improved skating, spectators are forewarned to bundle up before venturing inside. Several years ago, a visitor from Canada told the Belmontonian editor he attended games at outdoor rinks in Calgary which were warmer than the inside of the ‘Skip.’

It is unlikely the required work needed to upgrade the skating rink is on the horizon.

According to a recent study by the Capital Budget Committee, renovating the skating rink will cost an estimated $5 to $6 million. The committee also noted such a repair is not a current priority for the town; a new $20 million police station or a $28 million Department of Public Works Yard are higher on the list of needed capital projects.

For those reasons, a collaboration between the town and outside financing is the best chance for a renovated rink in the near future. In addition, Belmont is coming off two highly successful public/private ventures in 2014. A group of residents led by Frederick Jones contributed $100,000 and hours of sweat equity to extensively renovate the eight-decade old White Memorial Field House before the start of the 2014-15 fall sports season at Belmont High School.

Last fall, Belmont Savings Bank led the effort to raise $400,000 in public money by contributing half of the amount to save the construction of the new Underwood Pool after a low bidder withdrew its bid.