The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department is considering its options for putting a new roof over the Rotary Centennial Ice Rink. We think there are good arguments for putting up a roof, and equally good arguments for not choosing the more expensive option.
The usability of the rink, which has been without an overhead cover since a canopy was destroyed by heavy snow and a falling tree in 2007, definitely suffers without the added protection. Parks officials say about two-thirds of the user days are affected by weather.
Warm weather in the winter, especially when accompanied by rain, can turn the ice to mush, making it at best a less enjoyable experience and at worst unusable, closing the rink entirely. That can leave users up in the air about whether the rink's available and even more up in the air about whether they want to attempt to skate through slush.
The parks department has budgeted $112,000 for a temporary roof that would last 10 years at the outside. It is also considering the idea of a "permanent" roof, which parks officials say would be good for 20 years, at an estimated cost of $500,000.
For starters, it's hard to make that math add up. Ten years for $112,000 or 20 years for $500,000? If our math is correct, the shorter version comes in at $11,200 per year, while the longer-term option pencils out at $25,000 per year. There probably are savings associated with the longer-term option that aren't immediately evident, but it's still hard to make that pencil out.
The bigger issue for us is that in this time of scarce public resources, it's tough to justify spending a half-million dollars to cover an ice-skating rink. Yes, the rink is an asset for the city, but it is a minor piece of the overall parks and recreation operation and one that is subject to the whims of the weather, covered or not. This isn't Minnesota (thank God), so an outdoor ice skating rink is always going to be a marginal operation.
The Parks and Recreation Department is faced with what seems to be an almost inevitable loss of significant funding, possibly in the near future as its budget is rolled into the general fund. While parks funding has long been separate from general city operations, a statewide ballot measure passed years ago rolled all auxiliary levies into the main general funds of cities and counties. The city is considering transferring $650,000 to $1.8 million in parks reserve funds into the general fund, which it clearly has the authority to do.
Given the uncertainty of future funding and the many needs that will arise or already are showing up in the parks system, it's hard to justify a $500,000 expenditure on an ice rink canopy. We have no problem with the smaller amount, which clearly adds a benefit to the rink, its users and the city at large, but at a much lower price.
If rink users and park officials think it's necessary to go for the more permanent structure, they should be prepared to seek outside funding and perhaps launch a fundraiser. The rink is an attraction and a nice addition for the city on the days that it's usable, but the primary beneficiaries are the skaters themselves. So it makes sense that the skaters be directly involved in any major undertaking involving it.
We're glad the rink exists and believe it does add to the charm of this city. A modest investment of public dollars to protect it is a worthwhile thing to make it more useful and ensure its success. A half-million dollar expenditure, however, would put too much of a scarce resource — public dollars — into that project at the expense of other worthy efforts.