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.

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