Homer Hockey Association rallies to keep rink off financial thin ice

How valuable is a facility that attracts an estimated 1,500 people to the city during the slow winter months, with those people spending about $425,000 while they’re here? A facility that attracts hundreds of area residents of all ages for hockey and figure skating lessons and the opportunity to participate in hockey, broomball, curling and other ice-related activities?

Valuable enough to keep, says the Homer Hockey Association. 

Through Tilt, an online crowdfunding site, HHA is attempting to raise $60,000, enough to help meet payments — interest plus principal — on the Kevin Bell Arena for a year beginning in September. Through an agreement with the building’s owner, Homer Spit Properties, a subsidiary of English Bay Corporation, HHA’s current payments are for interest only, with the principal to be added Sept. 30, 2015. Monthly payments of $8,100 will then increase to $14,429.10, and continue until Aug. 31, 2038.

“This is an opportunity for our members to reach out to friends, family and hockey supporters using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or email,” said Jan Rumble, HHA-Kevin Bell Arena secretary, in announcing the campaign. “We are hoping to build broad support for the rink on the Kenai Peninsula and beyond.”

HHA’s fundraising campaign “tilts” if $10,000 is raised in 60 days.

“Once we get to $10,000, we can keep all the money that is fundraised and after that, all the money as well,” said Rumble, explaining what “tilt” means. Tilt charges a small administrative fee of about 2.5 percent.

If $10,000 isn’t raised, no one is out any money. Although credit card information is entered at the time an individual pledges a donation, nothing is charged if the $10,000 isn’t reached. 

As of Wednesday morning, the site had raised $8,150. 

With years of experience managing rinks in Fairbanks and Juneau, Greg Smith, now of Juneau, said Homer’s size and location add to the funding challenge.

“You don’t have real close neighbors to draw from and it’s a small population, so it’s certainly much harder,” said Smith.

The size of the Homer’s rink adds to the problem.

“If you want to make money, you have a complex that can keep three sheets of ice busy for 18-20 hours a day,” said Smith. “But that’s talking big cities. Single sheet rinks just aren’t built and aren’t built to make money anymore. … Unless you have something like a bar attached or a private venture, maybe.”

Drawing from his knowledge of other areas in the state, Smith said most have a 25-50 percent cost recovery, meaning revenues are able to generate that percent of the operating costs. Making up the difference requires “a will of the community to accept a subsidy as good for the kids, good for the town, for what it brings in for the tournaments,” said Smith. “It might not be directly related, but it is indirectly related in terms of hotels and restaurants.”

The Homer Hockey Association formed in the mid-1970s. Without a local rink, skaters were dependent on Mother Nature. Below-freezing temperatures meant skating; warm spells meant finding something else to do.

As interest in ice-dependent activities grew, athletes traveled to other peninsula communities to get in practice time. During the warm weather of December 2002, the 14-member Homer High School hockey team traveled to Kenai and Soldotna for practices, spending less time in on-ice practice than they did playing league games.

In 2003, with the Kenai Peninsula Borough courting the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, the city of Homer and HHA signed a memorandum of agreement to secure a site for a multi-use ice facility, construct it and operate it during the winter months. The agreement included the city ultimately assuming ownership of the land and improvements and primary financial management responsibility of all aspects of the project, estimated at the time to cost a little more than $2 million.

In December of that year, the Rasmuson Foundation awarded two grants totaling $50,000 for construction of a $1.5 million facility to be located on Homer Electric Association land next to the Homer post office. The grants included a one-time $450,000 grant and a one-to-one $50,000 grant for which HHA had a year to raise the match. With $120,000 in the bank, HHA was ready to move ahead on construction, said then HHA president Harry Rasmussen.

Additional funding for the project came in 2004, when the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ office announced $3.35 million of the 2004 Omnibus Appropriations Bill to be set aside for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, with $750,000 to be used for ice rink construction in Homer and upgrades to the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna. Another $1 million in transportation funds was to improve rink parking and access. 

The project ran into problems when site work costs soared from $500,000 to an estimated $1.3 million. Other costs also began skyrocketing, such as steel for the building that jumped from $160,000 to $360,000. 

“We’re in a real Catch 22,” Rasmussen said in a Homer News story, June 17, 2004. “If we don’t have the building by the end of the year, we lose the (Arctic Winter Games) money.”

After an alternative plan for a 27,000-square–foot air-supported “bubble building” failed to get the Homer Advisory Planning Commission’s approval for an amendment to a conditional use permit, HHA shifted its focus to negotiate a lease on the Spit property owned by English Bay Corporation. 

HHA and Homer Spit Properties reached an agreement late in 2004 that paved the way for development of  the Kevin Bell Arena. The Rasmuson grants and Arctic Winter Games funding were transferred to the revised project. Construction of the rink was done by Sunland Development, the rink opened in 2005 and the Arctic Winter Games were held in 2006.

In September 2008, HHA negotiated with Homer Spit Properties to purchase the building for $2.2 million. They continue to lease the property on which the building is located for a nominal amount.

For 10 years, HHA has operated the rink within its budget, which totals $331,002 this season, according to Rumble. That includes utilities, repairs, maintenance and equipment.

“We raise that through ice fees and looking for donations and advertising,” said Tracey Tillion, who serves on the HHA finance committee. “We’re just looking right now to capture the additional portion for next year and will continue looking for additional fundraising opportunities.”

Among those lending a helping hand is the Scotty Gomez Foundation, named for Scotty Gomez of Anchorage, who was drafted by the National Hockey League in 1998. The foundation’s typical donation is $1,000, but it has donated $1,500 to HHA.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to help each other out,” said Gomez’ father, Carlos Gomez, adding that Homer is not alone in its struggle to support an ice rink. “Pretty much everybody is struggling,” he said.

Support of the Kevin Bell Arena is an investment that proves itself over time, according to Smith.

“Hockey is very much generational. Kids that grew up playing will come back and have families. Now is the time where it’s make or break. It will grow. People will come back. People will move down with their kids. Growth will take place,” said Smith. 

“If someone has a magic wand to make a single sheet of ice break-even or profitable, they’ll sell a manual and make a lot of money on a how-to book, but the reality is that it’s very, very difficult,” he said.

Impressed with HHA’s fundraising campaign, Gomez said, “All you can do is help where you can. That’s what we’re doing. God bless them.”

The Tilt campaign isn’t HHA’s only fundraising effort. An annual raffle that benefits ice costs is currently underway and brings in about $20,000.

“We’re selling raffle tickets until Jan. 26,” said Tillion. “Tickets are $5 and the grand prize is $2,000.”

The drawing will be Jan. 31 at the Kevin Bell Arena.

• To donate to the Tilt campaign, visit tilt.com/campaigns/dont-let-our-rink-sink/description.

• For a schedule of Mariner hockey and the Homer Winter Jamboree happening at the Kevin Bell Arena this weekend, see related stories, page 14.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.