Commentary by Frank Schroth
At the risk of walking onto thin ice, here are some thoughts on moving forward with the Ulin rink which is more than a bit of a sticky wicket for the town. This dramatic municipal miniseries has a long cast of characters (DCR, Town Planner Bill Clark, Friends of Ulin rink, Selectman Tom Hurley, Curry College, Senator Joyce, Representative Tiimilty) and a plot laced with suspicion. But there are no bad guys. . . there’s just no money.
Here is a quick history. Some time ago (around 2010) the DCR made a decision to shed it’s rink operations. Some rinks were turned over to private firms to run. Others were taken over by local municipalities (Arlington). The Ulin rink was one of those rinks and both Senator Joyce and Representative Timilty sought legislation that would allow the town to obtain a long term lease. That never happened and in 2013 the DCR appeared to be having a change of heart regarding turning over rink management.
The town obtained a 5 year permit to run the rink from the DCR and subcontracted the management to Curry College. That DCR permit would have expired this coming April. The DCR has extended it by a year.
In the intervening time there have been concerns raised regarding Curry’s management of the rink, specifically a decrease in ice time for local organizations. Curry disputes this and has stated it is in compliance with DCR regulations on ice time. They may both be right. There are two dimensions to this issue. One is total available hours and the other is when those hours are available. Regardless, that is not the fundamental issue. The key issue is financial. The DCR began turning over rinks because they were losing money – a lot of it. Curry College is also losing money, though not as much. In January the DCR allowed for an increase in fees. Curry and the town chose not to take advantage of that until after the current season. No matter who is running the rink they will unlikely be successful if the DCR imposes the same conditions on them that resulted in the DCR incurring losses.
One could make an argument that Milton never should have gotten involved in this. The DCR could have controlled the bid process for rink management. Let the DCR decide between Curry and whatever other organizations are interested. Having the Board of Selectmen and Town Planner tangled up in this makes no sense. Their pursuit of this was well intentioned; but if any town board was going to take this on logically it would be Parks and Rec.
We are where we are. Disentangling the past history on this, assigning blame, etc etc is not a productive exercise. The goal remains the same and is one shared by all: to provide a safe, affordable rink to the skating public.
The DCR has maintained effective control of this rink and they need to take responsibility for it. They have handcuffed communities and the result is a toxic stew at the local level (This is true in a range of communities – things didn’t work out too well in Saugus either).
Selectman Tom Hurley has informally put forward a number of suggestions on this that have merit and warrant support. Please note that these are in the very early stages of planning.
The suggestions include:
- Setting up an enterprise fund as a financial mechanism for addressing long term funding should the town enter into long-term lease with the DCR for the Ulin rink. There is a prequalification process that needs to be addressed first. The success of this fund will depend on the projected cash flow from ice rental and potential advertising contracts.
- Turn control of the rink over to the Park Department. They would determine how to operate it. They can issue an RFP and they may or may not award to Curry.
In an email Hurley noted that “I have made it quite clear that I would not want to see the current arrangement whereby Curry guarantees operating and capital cash flows continued. Such a model is not sustainable in the long run and is not a fair burden to place on the manager. It would be my desire to either have the rink operated internally or if an outside manager is utilized that it be under a convention management contract with a traditional management fee.”
We hope the other selectmen aggressively support Mr. Hurley’s efforts. It is the start of a better way. An effort that actively engages the vested interests (and puts any ill will aside) — the Park Dept, Friends of Ulin Rink, Curry, and the DCR — in a mutually understood process that drives to a result which delivers a financially sustainable skating amenity to the public can happen. At a minimum there needs to be an exit strategy for the Selectmen and the Town Planner to put the bulk of the responsibility for this back onto the DCR.