City puts an end to artificial ice rink after high costs, declining popularity

In pairs and on their own, skaters slide around the Library Lawn Skate Rink, next to the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., on Saturday, Dec. 26. The rink features a simulated-ice surface and rents skates.

The synthetic ice rink purchased by the city three years ago will not be coming out of storage this year.

Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Mark Hecker said the decision not to install the skating rink was the result of a discussion during the city’s annual budget process.

Hecker said that declining ticket sales since the rink’s debut season and the cost of labor and materials for the annual installation were both factors in the decision.

“There was quite a bit of work involved with putting it together and setting it up,” Hecker said. “And the number of users was declining over the last two years.”

The rink is made of plastic pieces that fit together, but it requires a wooden deck to be constructed beneath it each year. The rink has been temporarily installed during the holiday season on the lawn beside the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

Construction was underway Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014, for a skating rink of artificial ice in the plaza between the Lawrence Public Library and the parking garage on Vermont Street.

In addition to hiring staff to run the rink, it cost thousands of dollars to install the rink each year it was used. The rink operated at a loss of more than $12,000 last season, and several thousand more than that when accounting for the depreciation of the artificial ice surface and skates.

When the rink’s expenses came up during the City Commission’s budget process, none of the commissioners spoke in favor of continuing it. Hecker said the department took that as a general direction to not set up the rink.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert was vocal about his opposition to the rink at the time. This week, Herbert said he sees the rink as an example of the sunk costs fallacy, where something is continued because a lot has been spent on it.

“So many times when it’s been brought up, the justification for having it was, well, it was an expensive skating rink to originally purchase,” Herbert said. “But that doesn’t justify the money we keep pouring into it year after year.”

Herbert also said that there are a lot of costs to maintain and staff the rink and that ticket sales have declined significantly each year.

In 2014, the City Commission voted 3-2 to approve the $80,000 purchase of the skating rink. In the winter of 2014/2015, its debut season, about 8,600 admission passes were sold. The surface originally drew some complaints from those used to skating on real ice, which allows easier gliding. The following season, the number of passes sold was down to about 3,000 and the year after that to about 2,000.

Another issue with the rink was the yearly installation cost. The rink cost $18,000 to install the first year and about $9,000 the following two years. The installation is costly because it requires the removal of part of the library’s sod lawn, construction of the deck, and the reinstallation of new sod once the skating season is over.

At the end of last season, the city initially planned to find a way to forgo the need to build the deck and replace the sod. The city hoped to find a location to pour a concrete slab or use an existing concrete surface such as a tennis or basketball court for the rink’s base. The location would have also required bathrooms and a structure for ticket sales and skate storage.

Hecker said they didn’t find a suitable location that met all those parameters. As far as what the city will do with the rink, he said it’s in storage and that he doesn’t know beyond that.

However, there is some hope for those who wish to skate over the holiday season. Hecker said if temperatures stay in the 20s for an extended period of time, it gives the city some options. He said the city could flood the low-lying area of Watson Park or offer skating on ponds in city parks if the ice reaches an appropriate thickness.