Houlton still working to curb civic center losses

Posted Sept. 30, 2013, at 4:13 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — For the past few years, the town has continued to struggle to curb the financial losses it has suffered at the Millar Civic Center, a popular ice skating rink and rental venue.

During a recent Town Council meeting, the group again tried t o reconfigure a fee schedule for peak ice time at the arena and to generate more fundraising revenue for new hockey boards at the facility, but the plans are not working out as well as they had hoped.

The 24,200-square-foot center is an ice rink in the winter and a site for trade and gun shows, wedding receptions and other events throughout the rest of the year. Once named the John Millar Arena, it was rebuilt and expanded in 1999-2000 after its roof collapsed under the weight of snow in 1998.

While the facility can hold 3,260 people, it is too small for large concerts and shows that could bring in more revenue. The town regularly loses money on the building, which costs approximately $200,000 annually to run. Revenue in 2010 paid only half of the operating costs. The majority of the facility’s revenue comes from rental income and concession profits. A local hockey club and the Houlton-Hodgdon Blackhawks high school hockey team are the primary renters.

The council voted last year to raise the hourly fee for peak ice time rental from $100 to $130 this year.

During a meeting in August, however, the council voted to waive the peak hourly fee of $130 after both the Southern Aroostook Minor Hockey Association and the Woodstock Minor Hockey Association asked for a reduction in the fee for the upcoming season. The two groups are major users of the facility.

Peak time is 3 p.m.-9 p.m Monday-Friday, and 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. The Southern Aroostook hockey organization asked for the fee to be reduced to $110 per hour, while Woodstock Minor Hockey Association asked for it to remain at $100 per hour. By reducing the fees, the town loses an estimated $4,300 in revenue.

The Houlton-Hodgdon Blackhawks did not request a waiver.

During last week’s meeting, councilors considered implementing the ice rate hike in steps, starting with $110 this year, increasing it to $120 next year and finally $130 in 2015.

The decision was partly based on the fact that the town believed the civic center was charging one of the lowest fees for peak ice time in the area. Melissa Marino, president of SAMHA, drafted a letter to the council last week explaining that at $130 an hour, Houlton was now charging the highest rate.

According to Marino, The Forum in Presque Isle charges $110 an hour for peak ice time, while the Carleton Arena in Woodstock, New Brunswick, charges a sliding scale fee of between $68 and $126 in Canadian funds, and The Barn in Hartland, New Brunswick charges $85 per hour.

The town is determined to bring more money into the facility not only to help keep it from burdening taxpayers, but also because they have sunk more than $100,000 into the building for upgrades in the past few years.

The town has purchased a new computerized temperature control system, a new compressor, a skate sharpener and this year spent $75,000 for hockey boards for the arena. Town officials had hoped that fundraising would pay for the boards.

During the recent meeting, Chairman Paul Cleary said that thus far, fundraising has garnered only $20,000 to reimburse the town for what it spent on the boards.

In the end, Councilors Dan Peabody, John White and Phil Cloney voted against implementing the three-year step cycle for the ice rate hike, so the measure was defeated. The rental rate remains at $130 for all with the exception of the Southern Aroostook and Woodstock hockey organizations who were granted the lower rates under waivers.

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