By Jamison Cocklin
Hundreds of families and other winter sports enthusiasts in the Mahoning Valley got a piece of good news Tuesday when it was announced The Ice Zone would reopen Aug. 21 and commit to another season of hockey, figure skating and public events.
The rink closed in May after years of dwindling revenues, high upkeep costs and the slow pace at which ice sports have caught on in the Valley.
On Tuesday, the rink’s owner, Bruce J. Zoldan, who also serves as president and chief executive of Phantom Fireworks, said the facility will reopen under a new business model with the goal of making it a sustainable and permanent part of the community.
“I could not be happier to once again be able to provide our community with a venue for a wide array of ice sports and activities,” Zoldan said in a statement. “Closing The Ice Zone was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever been forced to make.”
Years of effort to sell the facility will continue, though, said facility manager Skip Mackall. He added that any potential buyer would have to wait out another season of events at The Ice Zone, however.
Though a potential buyer would be free to use the facility for any purpose, Mackall said the best opportunity to sell it would be as an ice rink.
Plans for the new business model don’t call for any dramatic changes in its operations. The ownership is taking steps it hopes will make the rink economically viable.
The facility, which opened in 1997, boasts two sheets of ice, a larger Olympic-sized one and a smaller regulation sheet. For the past two seasons, the rink has made ice on only one of the surfaces, the regulation sheet, which was better suited for hockey.
Under the new plan, the regulation sheet will be closed this season and the Olympic sheet will open. Larger space and more lighting will better serve the general public, Mackall said.
Public skates, pickup hockey and freestyle figure skating will resume under the new model. Groups, youth sports clubs and hockey organizations will still be able to rent the Olympic ice sheet on an hourly basis.
Mackall said rental rates have gone up slightly under the new model. From September through March 2014, ice time can be rented for $325 per hour, while blocks of 50 hours or more will be available at a reduced rent of $275 an hour. Many of the rink’s patrons, Mackall said, use the rink for more than 50 hours and likely will pay the reduced rate.
The rink will no longer coordinate programs as it did before. For example, it established membership for the Youngstown Area Amateur Hockey Association and collected dues. Those kinds of administrative tasks will now be up to the organizations.
“We’ve known they would reopen for a while now and expected higher rates,” said Bob Gray, president of the youth hockey association. “It’s not the greatest thing for a youth organization to try and weather that kind of storm at this stage. Our teams have already been placed and we start practice out of town next week. Because of all this confusion, we’ve lost nearly 50 kids from our program.”
But Gray said he welcomed The Ice Zone’s reopening. After it closed in May, many of the youth association’s players, from grade school through high school, were forced to practice and play games in Pittsburgh, New Castle and Beaver Falls, Pa., this summer.
Although they play home games at the Covelli Centre, Zoldan’s Youngstown Phantoms, who play in the United States Hockey League, will return for practice at the facility starting Aug. 20.
At the time of The Ice Zone’s closure, Eric Ryan, executive director of the Covelli Centre, said the Phantoms would have been charged by the hour for extra ice time there. That schedule would have conflicted with other events at Covelli, and without a practice rink to call their own, the Phantoms would have been forced to travel to rinks in Pittsburgh, Kent, Canton or others throughout the region on occasion.
The rink will start a full schedule Sept. 6 with weekend public skating and other events. For a list of times and dates, visit www.theicezone.com.