April 2, 2014

Columbia’s ice rink skates on red ink again

Rink director Jeff Caton blamed the rising flow of red ink this season on a warm and rainy fall that slashed attendance in half on weekends when most people want to skate.

Columbia’s experiment with a downtown ice skating rink lost about $103,000 last season, a worse loss than the first year of operation.

During the fall and winter of 2012-2013, the rented rink at Boyd Plaza lost almost $71,000, the city’s recreation director said Tuesday.

Director Jeff Caton blamed the rising flow of red ink this season on a warm and rainy fall that slashed attendance in half on weekends when most people want to skate. Overall attendance during the 53 days, or 71/2 weeks, the rink was open plummeted by about 6,300 skaters compared to the first year, according to figures Caton shared with City Council. The rink opened a week later than the first year because of when Thanksgiving fell in November.

The loss will be absorbed from the recreation department’s budget, he said. The department will budget for a loss again this upcoming fall and winter.

Caton said city parks and recreation departments do not operate at a profit. “Pretty much everything we do loses money,” he told council.

One way to cut losses would be for corporate sponsors to help with the expenses, Caton told council. This season expenses reached about $183,200 compared with $203,000 the first year, the figures show.

Greenville and Spartanburg operate their rinks with heavy doses of corporate support, he said.

It rained the first four weekends after the rink opened on Thanksgiving night 2013, Caton said. He described the weather throughout the rink’s season as “almost the worst-case scenario.”

The most recent figures mean the rink lost about $31,400 more than during the initial season despite operating a week less than in 2012-2013 and the city making cost-saving adjustments this year, Caton said of the figures.

City recreation employees ran the rink this year and did so more professionally than the private company that operated it the first year, Caton said. That move saved the city $12,000 in salary expenses compared to private workers.

Operating hours were reduced, too. The rink was scheduled to open at noon, but admissions were postponed until 4 p.m., he said.

This year’s budget was funded out of the city’s general fund, while meal-tax revenue paid for the rink the first year.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said the rink is a nice amenity for Main Street. But she wondered how long the city budget could sustain annual losses.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said he supports keeping the rink in operation. Council is preparing to tackle the budget for next fiscal year later this month.

In other action

City Council voted on Tuesday to make changes in animal control laws and adopted a master plan that will guide the operation and improvement of parks.

Animal services: The first of two required votes to allow dog owners to have up to three pets instead of the current two; make it easier for the city to prosecute animal cruelty cases and enforce proper treatment standards; leave it to property owners to get rid of pesky squirrels.

Parks and recreation: Endorsed a plan devised as a blueprint to improve recreation that also will make the city eligible for some public grant money. The plan does not bind council to specific actions.

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