As summer has just officially thunderstormed its way into the area, it may seem as though there’s plenty of time to put a major equipment decision on ice at the McCarthy arena on Evans Street. Especially when it could cost upwards of $4 million if the city doesn’t get any grant funding.
But from the appeals and official presentations heard during City Council’s conference session Monday evening, time is of the essence. A rapidly failing ice chiller isn’t likely to survive another full season, and without a working chiller, of course, there is no ice, no hockey program, and no evolving 12-month facility that just celebrated “a great first year,” according to arena operator Matt Gray.
That success hasn’t been without a fair share of struggles for Gray and his staff to keep the 20-plus-year-old chiller operational, he said.
“Our staff is doing everything they can to keep it running. It's a great expense with the R 22 (refrigerant). We do have leaks. It's costing, you know, our capital budget through the city is thousands of dollars a year. And that's one of the reasons why it has to be done because we're losing money,” Gray said. “Our staff during the winter, seven times, 10 times a week, are going up onto the roof, and they're thawing out a broken evaporator up on the roof, it freezes solid, it's 20 degrees out, 10 degrees when the wind’s blowing. It can't wait an hour … We know we have a challenge for this coming year. We've already sat down with all the staff, and they're up for it.
"We need to make it through this coming season," Gray said. "And we need to stick to the timetable hopefully for 2024 because of the 25 season so that we can open up in September of that season.”
His plea was supplemented by speaker Bob Gray, his dad and one of the founders of Friends of the Rink, who read a list of the many activities, fundraisers, events and related supporters that rally around the ice rink’s purpose.
From a free hockey try-out day for kids and wrestling to an 80s roller skating party and mega garage sale, in addition to the regular youth and adult hockey leagues, the rink has become an incrementally improved facility that council members should check out for themselves, the elder Gray said.
Tim Sprague spoke on behalf of the Batavia Ramparts youth hockey league, endorsing the rink not just for those players but for others outside of the city that use the facility. The Ramparts has become 200 members strong, and his own participation as a kid got Sprague through a tough time in his life when his mom died, he said.
“Growing up on Harvester Avenue, it was really helpful to have a place where I could go with my friends where they were like family, and I was able to be a part of that hockey community,” he said. “So it's not just the local area people that are using it, it's driving from all around, and it's pulling people into our community. And you're getting to see things that are happening at the rink. I honestly, the dirt bike thing I thought was a wild idea. I couldn't believe how successful that was to see that happen on the ice, and the amount of support that received was just really cool.
“So that's just all I really wanted to say, is just the support that Batavia Ramparts has for that rink and what it means to us. So thank you, we appreciate it,” he said.
John Roach of Batavia came to the meeting to comment on another topic, but while at the podium, he added that investing in a new chiller was “a no-brainer.” A couple of council members seemed to agree.
Councilman-at-large Bob Bialkowski appreciated the fact that the arena was being handled by someone local, and that has made a difference, he said. Council President Eugene Jankowski believes that the arena is “only getting better every day” and “hopefully we can get this chiller thing resolved.” Councilman John Canale has a lot of drum students that use the rink and believes that “we’re onto something, let’s keep it going.”
Paul Viele thanked the Grays for what they do to support the rink and asked, “What can we do to expedite this grant for them?”
The Climate Smart Communities grant, in the amount of $1,235,000, wouldn’t be available until December, City Manager Rachael Tabelski said. In the meantime, the council can consider applying for a bond to afford the $2.5 million capital project and purchase the chiller. Council would then approve a resolution to apply for the grant, which would be announced in December. The project would be put out for bid and award, to be installed between April and September 2024, before the new hockey season begins.
Tabelski presented two options if the council agrees to go forward with purchasing a new chiller. One is the cost of a debt service payment plan based on 25 years with interest, and the city doesn't get the grant. That tab amounts to $4 million, versus a total offset by the $1.23 million grant and decreased interest payments.
Her recommendation is based on a feasibility study conducted by the New York Power Authority, which concluded that the chiller should be replaced as a matter of financial practicality.
“You've heard me say it many, many, many times over the past two years. We operate on the R-22 refrigerant, which has been phased out of production. We spent over $90,000 in 21 and 22. You remember the emergency purchases for either refrigerant or oil during that time period. So we built reserves. However, those reserves are being flushed down into buying this refrigerant,” she said. “They absolutely recommend replacing the chiller, the evaporative cooler.
“Specifically, the grant has timeline parameters. So I'm gonna go through it in the presentation, but we have a choice to make tonight to approve a $2.5 million project and have council look at the two different scenarios of bonding and investment. One with a grant and one without,” she said. “My ask tonight is actually to approve it, not knowing whether we get the grant or not, by letting you know we do have sufficient funds in the general fund to make those bond payments. So again, we wouldn't know about the grant until December if Council chooses to 1. approve the capital project and 2. to apply for this grant. So it's kind of like we need to get started now to hit the April timeline of when the ice comes up to move forward with the chiller replacement.”
Council moved several resolutions to the next business meeting on July 10 so that the group could vote on:
- Approving the $2.5 capital project to purchase a new chiller and evaporator system for the ice rink.
- Using a new county program that provides a one-time use of $5,000 for grant-writing services to pursue a Climate Smart Communities grant to offset the cost of the new chiller.
- Agreeing to apply for the Climate Smart Communities grant of $1,235,000.