Woodstock Arena Faces Unclear Future
Figure skating is one of many uses of Woodstock's Union Arena. The arena goes before the Woodstock Union School Board tonight in hopes of accessing an endowment that would ease its debt. Valley News - Travis Dove Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock — Walks with his daughter, Molly, sometimes remind Union Arena general manager Dan French of the Woodstock community center’s finances.
Molly can keep pace with her father’s stride, but she always seems about 15 feet behind, the elder French joked recently. Over its 10-year history, Union Arena has done the same: French said the facility could operate in the black if it wasn’t servicing debt, but the burden of it keeps UA in the position of regularly playing fiscal catch-up.
The arena goes before the Woodstock Union School Board tonight in hopes of establishing a bridge toward financial independence. Union Arena’s management board would like the school board to release $125,000 from an endowment established when the center was built, money designed to protect Woodstock High and district taxpayers. The arena would then use the money to pay off lingering debt.
The three trustees who oversee the endowment — valued at around $467,000, according to Ginny Eames, president of the board that manages Union Arena — have made no recommendation on the disbursement. One of those trustees, however, has expressed doubts that the community supports UA enough to keep it running in its current state.
Despite that, Eames is upbeat.
“It’s something that we see as very important to us to move on, get out from under the debt that bogs us down,” Eames said. “We are always thinking of how to take care of this. We want to get past that and get focused on the programming that we think is important.”
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. and will be held in Woodstock Union High School’s Teagle Library.
French characterized the ongoing debt as a combination of payments to vendors and loans made by individuals to help Union Arena through a rough economic stretch. The history dates back, however, to the building’s construction.
Woodstock High, which owns the arena, mandated the building’s backers to put up $450,000 in an endowment to pay costs that would be incurred should the arena fail as a business. The resulting 18-page construction agreement allowed for the center to be sited on the WUHS campus.
That expense, and a lag in initial fundraising, forced organizers to take out a $500,000 construction loan from Randolph National Bank to help pay for the center, which opened in 2003. A management company, Union Arena Inc., was formed to run the building as a nonprofit organization.
The bank note was paid off two years ago, French said. But servicing that debt meant other expenses took a lesser priority, so much so that UA has never been able to fully escape it.
“If the trustees agree to release the money or the Woodstock School Board agree to release (the money), it would make operations smoother here,” said French, who is two years into his second go-round as GM. “It would stabilize pricing. It would also help us look to invest in new programming. If they do not release it at all, that would make us, the Union Arena board, have to make decisions on what to do next.”
At the moment, the trustees appear not to view the request favorably.
“There’s a difference between opinion and fact,” said school board member Jay Leiter, who is one of the three trustees overseeing the endowment. “It is their opinion that the community supports (the arena), but that remains to be demonstrated as fact.
“The arena has been a real boon to the community; a lot of kids use it. It’s unquestionably an asset. The question is whether the community can support it. They’ve lost money virtually every year they’ve been running.”
French called Leiter’s assertion “stunning.” In preparing for tonight’s meeting, French said he completed an economic analysis of Union Arena’s past year that pointed to 51,000 visitors, which he said equated to $1 million for the local economy.
“That showed a huge amount of support,” French added.
UA operates as a skating rink from mid-October to mid-March and again during a five-week summer session. It becomes a field house the rest of the year, serving as an indoor practice center for WUHS sports and other activities. The latter ranges from serving as a backup Woodstock High graduation site to woodworking, antique and book shows, as well as home bouts for an Upper Valley women’s roller derby team.
UA was built and has been operated without taxpayer funding, the whole purpose in establishing the endowment. With the high school as owner, the Woodstock School Board would eventually have the final say on Union Arena’s future.
Not getting the money request may bring the notion of UA as a viable ice rink into question. Options could include selling all ice-making equipment and operating UA as a field house, or perhaps razing the building.
French is bolstering his argument for the funds by pointing out the arena’s ice plant and related materials have a market value of $300,000, while the cost of tearing down Union Arena and turning into a field is about half that. Either way, the endowment would still have the necessary value to protect school and taxpayer interests.
“We’re at the point of wondering if we have to shut the doors, but we’re not sure what the line in the sand is,” said Woodstock School Board Chairman Dwight Doton, who also serves as a liaison to UA’s board of directors. “We’re not sure whether we’re where we financially can’t do it anymore. I know they are in need of money immediately, but I don’t know which of their liabilities are the type that would close the doors.”
Leiter said no decision on the request is expected tonight.
“I’ve been on the (school) board a long time, and the pace of change seems glacial, but the board actually does do things; they will have to make a decision,” he said.
“I think the Union Arena trustees feel a responsibility to make sure the board carefully considers the options. Their lack of a recommendation at this time is meant so the board can have a discussion, consider all the options and try to make a reasonable decision for the community at large.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.