Revisiting a 1986 study on building an ice rink in the Cumberland-Frostburg market

Picture of ice skating on Potomac River in Cumberland between 1905-1919

A crowd gathers to ice skate on the Potomac River in Cumberland, Md., as the Perry Mansion in Ridgeley, W.Va., is viewable in the background, circa 1905-1919. Credit: Western Maryland Historical Library

Nearly 30 years ago, a group of Frostburg State College business students wanted to see if an ice rink could be built in Allegany County.

Cumberland eventually got its own ice rink when the Riverside YMCA became the first YMCA in the nation to run an ice rink dubbed the YMCA Ort Family Ice Arena. That’s the same Ort whose name graces the Lewis J. Ort Library at Frostburg State University. Ort made his fortune in the bread industry, and sliced a loaf of his fortunes for an ice rink at the YMCA. What his connection to hockey was, I’m not quite sure.

The FSU student study is actually called “Marketing Research Feasibility Study on Ice Rink in Western Maryland.” For whatever reason, the authors decided to ignore Garrett and Washington counties, which also make up Western Maryland. Mind you, that these are students. At 26 pages, it’s surprisingly thin. So thin that buried in the paper is a line that more research would need to be done. Uh, mark that an incomplete, buddy.

Fortunately, the YMCA hired a professional consultant, though it didn’t matter much when the board of directors strayed away from his advice.

If you want to read the full study, it is housed in Ort Library’s Special Collections, neatly kept in a blue binder, and I recently had a chance to flip through it to see how well they did their homework and to see how much has changed in 30 years.

Choosing a location

Keep in mind that in 1986, Interstate 68 didn’t exist. The interstate was completed in 1991 but construction was ongoing during this time. It took 20 years and for most of the construction the freeway was U.S. 48.

Where I-68 would be laid was widely available when the students wrote this report as construction was ongoing. How the report completely ignored what I-68 would do for traffic patterns and changing the economy beats me. For that, the students should have earned a F.

What they probably didn’t foresee was the growth of Frostburg’s higher education institution—to the extent dropping College in favor of University because of its expansion and maturity.

The report decided the old 30,000-square-foot A&P Grocery store in LaVale was the prime spot for an ice rink, being a central location for the region, surrounded by the bulk of commercial activity in Allegany. This old grocery store was along Winchester Road and was next to an old shopping center called Sears Town, where Sears once reigned supreme until it moved to the Country Club Mall. Today, this stretch of land has Tractor Supply Company, Kohl’s, Martin’s and Gabriel Brothers, which is in the old Martin’s.

Now, I guess students thought the area would never change because they didn’t provide addresses for any of the places provided. The location of the old A&P was my best guess after talking to coworkers and through some Web searches. The report praised the grocery store’s building shell, traffic counts and was in a premier shopping destination and drew people from Cumberland, Frostburg and from West Virginia.

In Frostburg, the students looked at the Frostburg Armory, 160 S. Water St., and the Frostburg Comfort Inn, which I have no clue what is on that site now. A Comfort Inn is now in LaVale, and Frostburg’s flagged hotels are the Hampton Inn and Days Inn, right next door to each other on Md. 36. Anyone know if this is the same site?

Traffic passing by each of the sites was too low for both places, according to the report, and though the Frostburg Armory was a popular choice by Frostburg State students, its location on a dead-end street and in a non-commercial district put it at the bottom of the list. The Frostburg Armory is located just off campus on Lower Consol Road where yes, there is low-income public housing there today, but those families would at least come up for public skate, which is vital income for an ice rink. It’s also within walking distance of four residence halls and countless off-campus student housing.

Physically, the Armory would be too small. The walls are tight and the ceilings are too low.

Where To Build Today?

If you’re going to build this in Frostburg today, the town has a pothole-filled shopping center anchored by Roses that could serve as a good site, tearing down the former movie theaters. It’s easily accessible to I-68, too, and isn’t too far away from campus. I’d like to think there’s a warehouse somewhere around here that could serve as a good site but I haven’t explored as much to see what’s available. Loopnet, a commercial real estate listing website, doesn’t show much being available either.

There’s also a business park on the campus of Frostburg State with available land. It’s technically part of FSU. FSU owns the land but it’s hard to envision it as part of the campus without a connecting back road or walking trail.

It’s called the Allegany Business Center, off of Braddock Road on Technology Drive. The Allegany Research Center Active Network’s building is the only business building there, housing USGS, the Tri-County Council and tech company The Active Network. FSU also has its energy-conscious SERF building there (I’m an employee of FSU), and the university is in talks to receive permission for a developer to build a hotel there.

It’s deceiving looking at a satellite map knowing how much space is available. Amazingly, 37 acres still on the market. If a hotel comes, knock it down to about 32 acres.

Putting a rink on this land  would put it right off the interstate, beside job offices, beside student apartment housing and potentially beside a hotel. Property south of this closer to the I-68 interchange is being considered to allow a truck stop and a restaurant and other businesses on 25 acres after the road is widened, according to WCBC Radio. Also, senior housing is being planned here, boosting the other end of the population.

Suddenly, this becomes an attractive site. A hotel for visiting teams and tournaments. Students in walking distance for teams and public skating. Employees on site looking for a way to keep active after work, especially in the winter. A truck stop and other businesses bringing people off the interstate.

Down in the Valley

Switching gears back to the study, the 1986 report basically said no to Cumberland because most of the commercial traffic and activity was in LaVale and didn’t even consider any sites in the largest city and most dense population in the county. I’m surprised there wasn’t more digging by the group to consider any site in Cumberland. You can get pretty creative with a site, as long as there are compatible uses. Ice rinks aren’t like most businesses where you need drive-by traffic to be successful.

They need to have some complimentary businesses because the rink is a destination, mainly because it’s like a movie theater where there’s a schedule of when you’re going to go. One of those complimentary businesses? A hotel to house teams coming in for tournaments and people coming in for summer camps. (Hmmm…see above about the Frostburg site.)

Ironically, Cumberland was where the YMCA would build its ice rink for the community until it closed because of financial losses and poor guidance by the board. I always remembered that ice rink being busy despite its location challenges, but it could have been better.

That YMCA isn’t exactly in a central location for Cumberland residents, being tucked away in an industrial park that is surrounded by woods and the Potomac River. No neighboring businesses, no neighbors, really at all. Just for the gym features, the YMCA is not on the way to anything. For the ice rink end of it, there was no place at the end of the street that you could grab a quick bite, a few drinks or run some light errands. But with teams playing there, you went to the Cumberland rink because it was on the schedule.

Why would I choose Cumberland over Frostburg and LaVale? County seat with largest concentrated population in county. Plenty of hotels. Central to schools. Allegany College nearby and closer to Rocky Gap. Multiple interstate exits. Central location to other rinks for road games: Easy access to U.S. 220 to Pennsylvania for games in Johnstown and Altoona. Only 80 minutes to Hagerstown rink.

However, you have higher crime in Cumberland. Petty crime really, the type that’s an annoyance. But the city is all but built out. It’ll be hard to not only find open land but open land in a good neighborhood or not on a dead end street.

With the report focusing on Frostburg and LaVale you have some tradeoffs. More available land (though why not focus on urban renewal in Cumberland knocking down some vacant buildings). You’ll pay less in Frostburg, but will be away from the center of Allegany County. You can still draw people from southern Somerset and Bedford counties in either city, helping out the rink, and can grab more people from Garrett County.

Why would I choose Frostburg over LaVale? Transportation is still a barrier for college students. Not everyone can or will bring a car to campus and while I’ve seen full buses on the Allegany County Transit bus system, the schedule might not be preferable to haul down the road to LaVale for entertainment. It’s better suited for those who work in or around the mall and go to school here. In terms of commuting, the rest of the adult population will drive to any of the towns here to skate, drop off their kids to play hockey or take figure skating lessons or play themselves.

You have to realize that these parents are hauling their kids to games and tournaments 90 minutes to two-plus hours away every weekend. A difference of 10 to 15 minutes for their home rink isn’t going to matter in this region given that the closest rinks are 80 minutes away. But the adult programs, especially the growing novice leagues, rely more heavily on local residents.

Why would I choose LaVale over Frostburg? Much of Frostburg is built over old coal mines. If your soil and bedrock analysis is off and you choose the wrong spot in town, building costs can soar to a tune of $1 million to get concrete support poured deep enough into the ground. Key buildings at Frostburg State University—particularly newer, taller ones—have such support and costs have gone up because of the issue with coal mines. And yes, you have more hotels and retail in LaVale to help visibility of the rink.

The surveys

If I couldn’t be more clear, this survey is from 30 years ago, so gathering hard data wasn’t as easy. So, a mail-in survey and a poll was taken to see if a rink would even be viable. Area residents, college students and high school students were asked to respond in three separate surveys.

The sample size is weak given the population, not even considering student population, in 1986. Only 54 out of 200 area residents returned their mail-in survey. The sample size margin of error for what was an 80,000-person county is about 20 percent. Oof.

You need a 10 percent return on the population size for an acceptable—3 percent—margin of error for survey results. That means you needed 8,000 people to respond. That also means you need to ask 16,000 people to take the survey if you think 50 percent of them will take it. If you think only 27 percent will take the survey, just like what happened here, you need to ask about 29,000 people take the survey in order to get 8,000 responses.

Now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, only 5 percentage points separated LaVale over the Frostburg Comfort Inn site, according to the mail survey. Would there be more separation or would the number sway or tighten up? We need more data.

The college survey, which had 100 respondents, isn’t too bad. I can’t find the college population then but hey, tuition cost $1,500 a semester back then, so there’s that. Those college students favored the Armory by nearly 20 percentage points more than the Comfort Inn, yet high schoolers surveyed in the region wanted the rink to be in LaVale but Cumberland and the Comfort Inn also had significant votes. High schoolers surveyed were mainly from Cumberland (89 percent), Oldtown (5 percent) and Rawlings (3 percent).

A high schooler survey would look dramatically different today with more students, and really, should include high schoolers in extreme southern Bedford and Somserset counties and in Garrett County. I’m intrigued by an idea to build a year-round rink at Wisp Ski Resort to add to the tourism there but the lower year-round population puts a damper on those efforts.

Other than that, the surveys asked if people have ever skated before—a majority have despite no skating rinks in the region—and many of them owned skates. And of course, they want public skating on the weekends and evenings. At least somethings never change.

The details

Beyond asking the general population, there are other data points a survey done today needs to consider for viability and expenses:

  • Registered USA Hockey members in the surrounding counties
  • Registered US Figure Skating members in the surrounding counties
  • Credits or grants for alternative and renewable energy power
  • Navigating costs associated with the Affordable Care Act
  • Cost of rental skates and showers, something left out of the report. (At least scoreboard and Zamboni were included.)

I know this was just a marketing study, but there are other costs that have to be considered for viability or at least, knowing what you’re working with. I think rinks get into the red so bad in the first few years because they haven’t budgeted for utility costs (especially water and cooling), revenue strategies to bring in tournaments/events, advertising costs and maintenance costs for the first few years.

The students made five assumptions that would make the rink successful, with one being some sort of government financing for part of the project. In today’s economy, that’s probably not going to happen. The Washington Times wrote a piece in March on how much ice rinks cost taxpayers (though the same could be said for golf courses and pools). But the underlying issue with most rinks is that the local governments aren’t funding a key marketing/fundraising position or finding the right people to make it successful. You’ll see in the piece how Evanston, Ill., is hiring someone to fundraise and market the community center that includes the rink to bring in more events and revenue.

If you don’t have someone in that position before you’re opening a rink, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You could tell because of some of that lacking information, the report didn’t cite anyone who was an expert in ice rink management or consulting that could offer advice and other factors to consider. The only person quoted as a source was an economic development director, who knows enough about real estate and buying power but not enough about the inner workings of a rink. (And I haven’t gone into the entire proper management issues that I extensively wrote about here before plus the public versus private considerations.) So, if you’re going to write a market study to see if an ice rink is viable in a certain market, you ought to talk to and quote someone who has managed rinks.

Revisiting the Cumberland rink, the YMCA hired Jack R. Vivian as a consultant to get it up and running thanks to his experience with other successful rinks. Here’s how that relationship turned out, according to a 1998 Herald-Mail story when Vivian was hired to manage the Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex:

Vivian, 56, also conducted a feasibility study for the YMCA ice rink in Cumberland, Md., and helped design it. YMCAs know how to run gyms, pools and fitness centers, but had no history with ice rinks, so Vivian was hired, said Laurie Robinson, the Cumberland YMCA’s chief executive officer.

Vivian taught YMCA officials how to set up the rink and schedule programs, she said. The YMCA only strayed from Vivian’s advice a couple of times and always regretted it, Robinson said.

Vivian quit managing the Hagerstown rink after a year because his firm wasn’t getting paid. A lot of bills weren’t getting paid by the Hagerstown rink at that time but after a few management changes are on the right track. In 2005, the Cumberland rink saw its final season. The YMCA later decided in 2006 that the ice rink wouldn’t return.

I’d like to believe that an ice rink is still viable in this region if it’s in the right hands, which is asking a lot. I challenge someone to do a new study to figure out if it truly is or if I’m delirious.

I’ll pitch in my time, too, to help. Even better, but if someone knows how to raise $4 million for a new rink and wants to build on here, let’s talk.

Updated 5/17/16 to add info about the Allegany Business Center.