July 4, 2017 Update:
It might have taken a little longer, but full credit to NCRC turning things around.
The rink now has a dedicated website, northcentralrec.com that has an easy-to-read schedule.
The ice slots are filling up, and I’m exited to see regular pick-up hockey scheduled.
What do you make of the changes?
2016 Updates: Operations have sorted themselves out since this original article. The NCRC will be booked to pretty much its maximum because Planet Ice closed is scheduled to close on July 31.
Before that, the rink’s operator installed a new manager, who told me changes will be coming and it will be fully utilized. That was before Planet Ice’s closure.
Yes, that’s a legitimate question you have to ask yourself about the North Central Recreation Center near Johnstown, Pa.
Is anybody home?
I debated writing about a place I haven’t visited yet, but when the barrier of finding out a schedule becomes so great, it forced my hand.
I finally received a response Nov. 19 after I tried calling and emailing the rink and its management company headquarters in the spring. I gave up during the summer and tried again this week and received a response the next day.
Let’s cut to the chase: A government-owned recreation center whose management is outsourced to a private company is not open for business every day.
For a better part of the year—and the better part of each day—it sits idle.
A manager confirmed to me in an email that yes, the rink is not open daily. She said in a follow-up response that they financially cannot run both the War Memorial Arena and NCRC full-time. Part of the reason to blame is that “hockey leagues at the school level have decreased.”
It’s an indoor rink, so it’s not like they’re battling the elements.
As much maligned I found the efforts at Morgantown Ice Arena battling technology issues from a decade ago by using technology from 30 years ago, the North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg, Pa., somehow makes it worse.
I will give Morgantown this: after visiting the rink, I found that they are so busy with programs for youth, college and adult hockey plus figure skating and public skate, there isn’t any room left for other programs. Morgantown needs a second sheet of ice, more staff and a technology upgrade, along with some customer service improvements.
The North Central Recreation Center, however, is managed by a conglomerate called SMG. They manage some impressive stadiums and arenas, mostly minor league facilities save for a NBA arena here and there plus Soldier Field in Chicago and Everbank Field in Jacksonville.
You might know them better as Spectacor Management Group, or maybe its older name, Comcast Spectacor before it broke off from Comcast. That’s the arena management group based in a Philadelpia suburb founded by Flyers owner Ed Snider, who sold his stake in 1997. Today, hotel company Hyatt and concession operator Aramark run the arena management company.
I just can’t see how a company that large can allocate enough resources to run a recreation center with care. It’s beginning to show in Cambria County, where SMG also runs the storied War Memorial Arena in Johnstown—now Hockeyville USA.
You’re open, when?
Look, everyone knows how much money it takes to run an ice rink. The utility costs to keep rink cold, the lobby and locker rooms heated and the showers run isn’t cheap.
It’s certainly possible that when this giant company looked at the books and what they could schedule for ice time, they would lose less money by closing the rink for most of the day to avoid paying staff to stand around with empty ice.
That is so dire, I wonder what keep the rink open at all. Why are they not being more aggressive bringing events to the rink?
My curiosity into what exactly goes on at the rink started where I always begin: looking for the schedule.
A Schedule of Events page lists public skate times and then pricing for parties. And if you want to book a party or get more information, the page says to call between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
This is what that message signals to me: We want your business but only if you can call during a three-hour window during the busiest time of your weekend, likely during a birthday party we’re trying to prepare for anyway.
The amenities page also shows that “Will be developing learn-to-skate and hockey programs.” Who knows when this was last updated. I guess they really didn’t need to update it since they don’t exist?
In the navigation bar, an ice rental link lands you on a Google spreadsheet that gives more insight.
You’ll see public skate times along with father and son stick and shoot, plus practice and game times for high school and youth hockey teams for every single day. Well, every day the rink is open.
Take another look at the spreadsheet and you’ll notice that most days have one event listed. Sometimes two or three. Yes, they are listing private ice rentals, too. If this spreedsheet is accurate, how the hell is a rink operating and making money hosting one event a day?
Public recreation facilities being managed by a private or non-government not-for-profit agency isn’t uncommon.
Other places, whether it’s a ball field or golf course or rowing facility, have to balance opening facilities for public use and creating revenue through booking events or leagues or camps to offset expenses. The philosophy and justification can get touch with open space parks.
For ice rinks, if you are managing a public ice rink, you ought to be designing programs that are open for admission to the general public rather than closing the facility completely for part of the day.
That means going beyond public skate and father-son stick time.
Broomball, drop-in figure skating, speed skating, drop-in hockey, stick time that’s not being limited to fathers and sons, which does nothing to be inclusive to girls. Or mothers for that matter.
The manager simply gave me that the going rate for drop-in is $165, implying that I’m going to have to rent the ice.
Instead, the rink is looking for its traditional revenue streams and packs it in when they naturally don’t come their way.
Social Media Communication
The social media game is just as weak.
Points for some effort in at least posting reminders about the schedule, but it’s always the same events unless they need to promote some event at the War Memorial.
When a customer has a question, there is never a response either. Parents asking who to contact for birthday parties, how much admission is, or asking if there will be a winter session for learn to skate.
Then there’s this confusing proposition from Sept. 22 where the rink says come on out for Learn To Skate and Learn To Play Hockey from 5 to 6 p.m. … Uh, you really shouldn’t have both groups on ice, even if you’re splitting them up on half ice. This sounds like a disaster.
Scrolling back to June 8, the page advertises that they had ice in until August and were still trying to get people to buy ice. And that’s it.
I mean, I sure hope they had camps or clinics booked for the summer, being the bread and butter of summer revenue. But nothing else?
There was no message saying the ice is down when that time came and no message that the rink reopened. Just simple, simple stuff.
At least I have an answer to why SMG is running a county-owned facility. Cambria County government was desperate to keeping the War Memorial Arena afloat and a study said the arena should be operated by a private company that would also help keep the Johnstown Chiefs in town, according to a 2009 story in The Tribune-Democrat. As part of the deal, SMG would also operate the North Central Recreation Center, according to the report.
The ECHL Chiefs left town anyway, and instead a mid-level junior team Johnstown Tomahawks came in. And the former director of the War Memorial was sentenced to prison for fraud, according to the paper.
It’s unclear when the contract with SMG ends. One report says it ended in summer 2014, but an editorial in August says the contract is being discussed now.
At any rate, the Johnstown newspaper advocated for a private company to continue to operate the NCRC, but didn’t endorse SMG to be that company:
If the commissioners and arena authority truly believe SMG is failing to meet its obligations, then they should take steps to find another private contractor to take SMG’s place.
The War Memorial can’t go backward to the days of an authority-hired manager controlling all facets of operation with no checks and balances– and no corporate structure that expects profitability.
SMG is on notice that its work and the results it is showing are being questioned.
The editorial also visits the fuzzy math by the company, showing that it ran a profit when it was receiving a conveniently timed bailout by the state and county to help pay for Hockeyville repairs at the War Memorial that weren’t covered by the prize money so a nationally televised NHL pre-season game could be played.
I’m sure the company will brag to commissioners that NCRC is running at a profit…because it’s closed for most of the year.
Too many rinks?
The only thing I can think to say at this point is Why does this rink exist?
I think I finally found a place where simply, there are too many ice rinks.
In Johnstown, you have the War Memorial Arena downtown. The junior team plays there and a few other youth teams play there—mainly because of the historic nature of the facility, tradition and the allure. Everyone wants to say they played in the “Slap Shot” arena. And more teams might want to play there after the Hockeyville renovations.
You also have Planet Ice, right off U.S. 219 and beside a shopping mall, about 8 miles southeast of the War Memorial.
Both of those rinks are 20 minutes south of NCRC.
Galactic Ice in Altoona is about 30 minutes east,off of Interstate 99.
The Indiana University of Pennsylvania rink is 45 minutes northeast.
All of those rinks have single sheets.
Just take Blair, Cambria and Indiana counties’ combined population, and it’s over 300,000, but spread out quite a ways in mountainous terrain and a couple valleys. The counties have challenge with finding enough higher paying jobs and a drastic decline of population in the city of Johnstown after steel and other jobs left town.
Is the rink necessary? It doesn’t sound like it.
It becomes more necessary if a few things happen.
Let’s step away from things that take boatloads of money, like attracting a ECHL team.
Can you focus on specialized programs?
Offer something the other rinks don’t.
- Instead of stick-and-shoot and pick-up, offer a skills and drills. This isn’t a Learn To Play for people getting on the ice for a first time. The first hour is drills to improve skating, passing and shooting while the second hour is a scrimmage.
- For the high-skill players, seek out your elite coaches or find trainers who can provide next-level instruction and difficult drills to push these players to the next level. Highly specialized individual skill training that you don’t get in competitive hockey where systems are taught more at the high school level.
- Do the same for goaltenders by finding a goaltending coach to host goalie training sessions.
- Partner with an institution or retired pros and become a hockey academy.
- Spend some money and start a broomball program, starting off with pick-up broomball. It doesn’t require skates and it’s actually fun. Very popular with middle through high school students.
- Become a site to host sled hockey for both kids and wounded veterans.
- Advertise with U.S. Figure Skating and reach out to coaches and Olympians that your ice is available, and plenty of it. Actually, go beyond U.S. Figure Skating and advertise to other countries because Canadian and British figure skaters are even training at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in Florida. Yes, there are many advantages to being in Florida, but the ice time is available here. And the ice doesn’t turn to soup.
- Offer a Learn To Drive The Zamboni School. Several rinks do it because it’s so fun and cool. Here’s a video I did in 2011 about one such class in Laurel, Md.
You could consider it a miracle that the War Memorial won the first Hockeyville USA contest, giving the arena hundreds of thousands of dollars of upgrades, possibly saving the arena.
The national spotlight surely has more calls coming in. The busier the War Memorial is, the busier NCRC can be.
So, here’s another miracle: a relocated ECHL team.
Thanks to the Hockeyville upgrades, and a new subfloor being installed in summer 2016, the community has a better chance of attracting a ECHL team. That eats up 36 nights plus ice time for morning skate and practice for the home and visiting teams.
I give this a 0.5 percent chance of happening. And be careful with what you wish for. What you want is this in addition to the Tomahawks games because the difference between the two is about 10 nights.
Or, SMG steps up its game bringing in other events and forcing more ice activities at NCRC. From scanning online, the War Memorial brought in Nancy Kerrigan’s Halloween On Ice, Long Island Medium, ZZ Top, wrastlin’, Royal Horses, a music festival, roller derby, a Slap Shot hockey tournament, Jehovah’s Witness Convention and a couple of Disney On Ice Shows. I made it as far back as May.
That’s not a busy arena and loses some events to State College and Pittsburgh, which has better venues. And maybe this signifies to the county government that despite the past issues at the arena—including a former manager being sentenced to fraud—it really should sink more money into renovating and upgrading the arena to be on an even playing field.
The more competitive the War Memorial becomes thanks to quality, the more ice-related events will be shifted to NCRC.
As you can see, there are endless solutions. They take dedication and time to develop. It’s not easy.
But it’s better than shuttering an ice rink for 20 hours a day.