Feature Article - July/August 2004
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Slick Setups

Programming, planning and promotional tricks that help heat up ice arena profits

By Stacy St. Clair

The mission was simple.

The Hoffman Estates, Ill., Park District wanted a state-of-the-art ice arena. The solution, however, wasn't easy. Nor was it cheap.

State law prevented the district from significantly raising taxes to pay for the project without voter permission. An anemic economy made it difficult to find support for a facility fully funded by taxpayers.

But rather than give up on their dream, Hoffman Estates park officials got creative.

The district formed a unique partnership with a local professional hockey club. The two parties inked a potentially lucrative deal to build a $14 million facility. The innovative move gave the park district an opportunity to build its dream facility without having to compromise on programming or design.

"They were looking for a partner, and we thought it was a great opportunity for us," says Sue Olafson, the district's communications director. "It was a great way to provide programs we wouldn't have been able to provide otherwise."

Welcome to the modern ice age, where it's not enough to freeze some water atop a concrete slap. Today's rinks have to be innovative with their programming, marketing and revenue streams in order to produce a profit.

Ice rinks, likes most recreation facilities, are big business these days. They need to be run with an acute business sense, while still understanding the demands of the athletes they serve.

Few facilities embrace this idea better than the Hoffman Estates Park District, which decided to attach an ice arena onto its Blackhawk Community Center. The building is intended to serve suburban Chicago's burgeoning ice-sport population. Once finished, it will transform the existing 35,000-square-foot structure into a 103,000-square-foot premiere ice facility.

The reaction has been overwhelming so far. Though the rink is not set to open for another six months, the ice time is already completely booked.

"There has been tremendous demand for ice time from many different ice organizations," says Dean Bostrom, district executive director. "Ice-time demand has far exceeded our initial budget projections and marketing plans."

The programming success—the entire project, really—could not have happened without the agreement between the taxing body and the professional hockey club.

The lucrative deal called for the district to borrow $12 million for the project, with the debt being paid back through arena revenues. The Chicago Wolves—the wildly popular AHL team that plays to packed arenas in a nearby suburb—also will contribute $4.5 million over the next 15 years. The team's contribution will be earmarked for improvements to the community center, the building to which the arena will be attached. Park officials say it will give the district enough money to build the village's only senior center, as well as a game room, teen center and more community rooms.

In exchange, the Wolves will receive both premium and exclusive practice times. The team will have 8,500 square feet in office and locker room space. They'll control the main sheet in two-hour blocks between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from August to June. Park officials estimate the Wolves will monopolize only 1 percent of the facility's available ice time.

The district, however, intends to capitalize on whatever time it has with the Wolves. The team's practices will be open to the public, giving the facility a chance to attract new patrons. It also will have the bragging rights—an extremely valuable marketing tool in the world of ice sports—to being home to a professional club.

The Wolves have agreed to hold youth hockey clinics each summer as well. The camps will create another way to attract new patrons and dollars to the facility. It also will help to expand the team's fan base.

"It's a win-win situation for both of us," Olafson says.