North Central Recreation Center to be used to ‘maximum potential’

Expect to see more activity at the North Central Recreation Center’s ice rink in 2016.

New General Manager Steve St. John e-mailed me after seeing my message to Cambria County Commissioners of suggestions for activities at the rink saying that the community ice rink will be busier.

“I would like to tell you things will be handled much differently going forward,” St. John wrote. “I plan to utilize the facility to its maximum potential. You should see changes as soon as I can make a few moves after the first of the year.”

I’d like to celebrate but will reserve judgment when I see the results. He at least seems determined and receptive to suggestions and change, which is partially why he was brought in to take over. The other reason being SMG lost its contract to an Idaho arena to a competing company, so St. John was effectively without a job there.

 

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Change afoot at North Central Recreation Center near Johnstown?

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The North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg, Pa., will have a new manager but from the same management company, SMG.

It looks like some progress could be coming to changing how a part-time ice rink is being managed near Johnstown, Pa.

The Tribune-Democrat reported Tuesday, Dec. 1 that SMG has reassigned Steve St. John from its Ford Idaho Center in Nampa, Idaho, to manage both the Cambria County War Memorial Center in Johnstown and the North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg, Pa.

St. John takes over for Thomas Grenell, who worked in some capacity at the arena since 1996. Grenell was hired by SMG as the general manager in 2003.

Grenell praised his use of analytics-based scheduling using a “Moneyball” theory predicated on those famous Billy Bean Oakland Athletics. The issue with his analytics is that it reduces risk so much, that it takes away more revenue opportunities. It appeared to have targeted a break-even approach instead of scheduling a “Moneyball” strategy to produce a surplus of money. That would be a novel approach, but even that failed as the county continues to subsidized both the rink and the arena.

That same article said Grenell used free labor from people on probation needing to perform community service to help stage and set-up concerts. Creative. But desperate.

That 2014 story linked to above also only cited money going back to the city in form of a 5 percent amusement tax that is collected instead of looking at the total revenue to offset expenses to the county, who’s paying the bills. Who knows what the number would have ended up being because a budget for this fiscal year wasn’t passed until days to go, the paper reported in August. That’s an interesting Moneyball play in itself.

Back to analytics for a minute. Similar to certain analytics in hockey, Grenell’s approach to scheduling appeared to only factor in how much money people want to spend on major events that are from Johnstown, and probably a certain radius. I’ll be generous.

While the arena was dark for weeks at a time, the NCRC was like a closed mine shaft. Programming for events at the NCRC should have looked at schedules from Planet Ice and Galactic Ice and said “well, if they are having pick-up hockey on Tuesday morning, I’ll schedule a session on Wednesday night because not everyone will show up to a morning skate because of work. And I’ll get some people who play in a league game on other days.”

In other words, just because one rink offers one time slot of something I like to do, it doesn’t mean I’m going to it. And it doesn’t mean it’s capturing everyone who wants to do that one activity, like pick-up hockey or stick-and-shoot. With two other rinks in the area, though, you do have to do some research looking at what leagues play on what days and what kind of crowd you can expect to draw. Most guys would at least like a day’s rest between games and a practice-like session. The younger, fit guys can do back-to-backs.

I’m somewhat OK with an arena being dark on certain days because of the size, even 4,000 seats being considered small. I’m not OK with an indoor community ice rink treating itself like an arena, being closed for most of the day and week, as it’s supposed to provide lower-cost recreation for the public.

SMG was motivated to move manager

The Tribune-Democrat’s Tuesday report fails to mention that the reason why St. John was available is that SMG lost its Idaho Center contract to Spectra. Spectra took over arena operations on Oct. 1, according to Venues Today, leaving St. John without a job there.

While the Tribune-Democrat writes a mostly rosy profile, it skimps on what this means for the North Central Recreation Center. I wrote about the North Central Recreation Center rink on Nov. 19, wondering aloud how a rink can even operate or function having one or two events per day given its utility costs.

Prior to writing that post, an assistant manager told me via e-mail that the rink doesn’t have a full schedule because the decrease in youth hockey programs in area schools. I can accept that, but I can’t accept that the rink hasn’t attempted the dozen-plus options I listed to provide public programs.

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The Cambria County War Memorial Arena tried a “Moneyball” approach to scheduling. It didn’t exactly work.

On the same day, I emailed the Cambria County Commissioners with my concerns and I heard back on Nov. 23 that they were forwarded to the commissioners and the Cambria County War Memorial Authority, which oversees the management company’s handling of the rinks, and to SMG.

It’s unclear if the authority met Tuesday. I can’t find a public agenda or schedule for this group online. I’d love to hear more about what is happening at these meetings and will contact the county to learn more.

In the meantime, I sent the county the list of ideas from my previous post now that there are some new ears willing to listen.

As for Grenell, the Tribune-Democrat doesn’t say whether SMG was fired or being reassigned to another position at another rink.

What St. John has done elsewhere

Just from what I’m glancing at on the Web, it looks like St. John is one of those managers who goes to a rink to turn it around for the company to help SMG keep its contract and moves on to the next rink/arena that needs help. For whatever reason, the situations have not been stable.

St. John only spent a year in Idaho and was with Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., which I’m quite familiar with. I attended a few ECHL Florida Everblades games there, researched its history and ties to a failed arena in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., and tore a ligament in my right knee during a stick-and-shoot. Maybe I remember it too well. The memory still burns.

Anyway, St. John was the vice president of event programming at Germain. It’s operated by a company that oversees both the Florida Everblades and the arena, and both have been on the market since 2013 when Peter Karmanos Jr., wanted to exit. Later, Karmanos decided he also wanted to get out of hockey altogether and sell the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.

The arena has a few things going for it that the War Memorial doesn’t. It’s newer (built in 1998), it’s larger, it’s in a bustling area with a wealthier population and it’s in Southwest Florida.

Everyone from Luke Bryan to WWE has had shows there in addition to the ECHL hockey. The Kelly Cup Finals have been played there, too. And the arena has a follow-on rink that is open to the community and can be walked to via the concourse of the arena. Sidney Crosby has scheduled informal camps there during the summer with fellow pros, and the Tampa Bay Lightning has held camp there, too.

I’m hopeful.

St. John helped start up a bar/nightclub in the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville, Ky., which drew the ire of local businesses. It was a creative move that in most cities wouldn’t be cause for concern, but considering the economic challenges in Pikeville and the surrounding communities, folks need every penny they can get.

In Nampa, Idaho, about 15 minutes west of Boise, the arena didn’t do hockey and instead focused mostly on college track meets, rodeo, concerts and basketball when it could. The ECHL Idaho Steelheads play in Boise’s small 5,000-seat arena. Even a new, shiny arena couldn’t be helped. Nampa taxpayers subsidized the arena to around $1 million or more the last few years, according to the Idaho Press.

Cambria County is subsidizing both the rink and the NCRC at about $150,000, depending on who you believe. I can’t imagine how Grenell would report the $600,000 in capital fund grants provided by Pennsylvania state agencies in the arena’s budget. Or Hockeyville prize money.

After what it seems like me dumping on the Trib-Dem, I will give reporter Dave Sutor credit for that August story detailing the discord and dysfunction with SMG’s handling of the arena. I empathize with reporters who walk into board meetings and have different people using different standards of reporting money, trying to make sense of who’s in the right. And your editor will say, “figure it out.” It’s also why you call a third-party source who can give context and point you in the right direction.

As long as St. John can point the NCRC in the right direction, then I’d be satisfied. And I can stop posting about this.