ROCKFORD — A Rockford Park District recommendation to close Riverview Ice House and de-emphasize sports tourism at the UW Health Sports Factory is being criticized as “shortsighted” and “rushed” by Mayor Tom McNamara.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Park District Executive Director Jay Sandine and parks commissioners, McNamara described the ice house as an asset and said the park district’s request to renegotiate a revenue sharing agreement for the Sports Factory is “disappointing at best and infuriating.”
“Much work and many partnerships have made our downtown what it is today and the 300,000 hockey visitors to our community plays a critical role, not just for the Park District or the City of Rockford but for dozens of small and locally-owned businesses,” McNamara wrote.
The park district’s 2020 Action Plan recommends the district’s skating operations be consolidated at Carlson Ice Arena in Loves Park, where a second sheet of ice would be added.
The park district says it can’t afford to bring Riverview and its aging refrigeration system up to date, and it says expanding the downtown ice house isn’t feasible because of issues with parking and a lack of available land.
The district estimates adding a rink at Carlson would cost between $10 million and $12 million, while doing the same at Riverview could cost as much as $27 million.
McNamara isn’t swayed by those numbers.
“Through numerous conversations with your Director and Board Chair, I understand that for less than $6 million, we could totally refurbish the mechanical systems, the exterior, including the roof, and the interior, including new locker rooms and concessions,” McNamara wrote. “This is far less than the proposed $11 million to build the sheet of ice in Loves Park.”
McNamara said he has offered to assist the park district in securing state and local funds to help make the ice house “an amenity that stays in Rockford for future generations to enjoy.”
The district and its taxpayers subsidize ice operations to the tune of nearly a half-million dollars a year, parks commissioner Ian Linnabary said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
“There are so many reasons why consolidation should happen at Carlson,” Linnabary said. “It just makes good financial sense and if we are to be good stewards of the tax dollars we’re charged with spending, then we have to be mindful of those facts.”
Tuesday’s virtual park board meeting generated emotional feedback from dozens of people who voiced their opinions on the plan. A total of 51 people signed up to speak and 43 ended up addressing the board during the roughly four-hour meeting that ended around 10:50 p.m.
“I see the Rockford Park District has returned to same position it announced to vehement disappointment in 2014,” Rockford business owner and longtime hockey player Jay Graham said. “The idea of demolishing Riverview Ice House, the jewel of our urban core’s renewal, and moving its ice miles north to the edge of Loves Park, ripping away nearly 300,000 annual visitors.”
Consolidating its skating operations to Carlson Ice Arena would help the Rockford Park District continue to provide high-level services to all of the region’s taxpayers, Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury said.
“This recommendation shows a great responsibility in the stewardship of the taxpayers dollars,” Jury said. “We also know that the sales tax and hotel tax generated by the events are Carlson Ice Arena and Sportscore Two benefit the city of Loves Park but also benefits the city of Rockford. The regional impact of these facilities is shared by both communities. Expansion of Carlson Ice Arena facilities will further the regional impact due to the location’s proximity to a shared commercial corridor between Rockford and Loves Park.”
Other recommendations include the closure of Elliot Golf Course in 2021 and the conversion of Mercyhealth Sportscore One into a natural flood plain.
Park district staff is also proposing to curtail the use of UW Health Sports Factory for out of town tournaments unless the park district receives financial help in the form of revenue sharing from other local governments.
The district’s Action Plan emphasizes investments in such priorities as neighborhood parks, playgrounds, trails, youth programs along with arts and cultural programming, which McNamara said he strongly supports.
The plan also recommends expanding programming at Washington Park Community Center, the construction of an indoor riding arena at Lockwood Park, improving the water quality at Levings Lake and the sale of a section of Beyer Park to the International Women’s Baseball Center.
The park district is reeling financially from a loss of revenue due to the cancellation of tournaments and events because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The increase in the state’s minimum wage will cost the district about $2 million over the next five years, district officials said.
Parks commissioners took no action on the recommendations Tuesday.
Commissioners are expected to approve a 2021 budget, which would likely include closings and consolidations, in November.
“I am concerned that we are being forced to have an ‘either or’ conversation instead of an ‘and’ conversation in public,” McNamara wrote. “In many ways, it feels as though the Park District is weaponizing investments in our neighborhood parks, stating we can only have maintained parks if Rockford loses major assets such as UW Health Sports Factory, Sportscore One and Riverview Ice House.”
Ken DeCoster: firstname.lastname@example.org; @DeCosterKen