ROCKPORT, Maine — Operating an ice rink in Maine, particularly in a rural area, is a difficult venture.
But thanks to benefactors and community support, Midcoast Recreation Center is a success story.
Founding members Nancy Symington, Ann and Rick Bresnahan, Caroline and Wayne Morang, and Marianne and Stuart Smith built the facility off Route 90 in Rockport and the doors to the recreation center opened in 2001.
“For probably 25 years before its opening there were many, many failed attempts to open a hockey rink,” said Barrett Brown, the chairman of the recreation center board.
The founders of Midcoast Recreation, however, wanted more than a hockey rink. He said they wanted a community center that would give families and the community an opportunity to get together.
The cornerstones of the center are its ice rink and indoor tennis courts. The ice rink is open September through March or April. The four tennis courts are open year-round.
Before it opened, people skated on ponds, he said. Maine Sports, owned by the Smiths, tried to start a youth hockey organization on an outdoor rink at its Rockport site.
The nearest indoor rink was in Augusta.
“There were only so many families who would be willing to travel nearly an hour both directions for hockey,” Brown said.
Three years ago, the founding members donated the facility to the community through the establishment of a nonprofit corporation.
“It was an enormous donation. One of the challenges that this community has is there have been a number of things built and donated to the community over time. I think it’s hard to appreciate the enormity of the benefits to the community,” he said.
Donations to the midcoast community have included Ellen Simmons’ donation earlier this year of the Strand Theatre to the nonprofit Friends of the Strand Theatre.
Brown said that building the recreation center was an enormous undertaking but the families also shepherded the center through its first years of operation so that it could be financially sustainable on its own.
The board leader said that running a rink is a challenge.
“There is a reason that rinks are either failing, or are nonprofits or owned by municipalities or schools. They are not money makers,” Brown said, adding that it has to be a labor of love.
There are 27 indoor ice rinks in Maine, according to the website Maine Vacations.
The Penobscot Ice Arena in Brewer had been financially strapped for years. Last year George and Linda Bishop purchased it and extensively renovated the facility, the couple said in an interview in December in The Weekly.
The annual cost to run and maintain Midcoast Recreation Center is slightly less than $1 million. Maintaining the facility in a quality condition and energy costs are among the most expensive parts of running the facility. He said even when a facility comes close to breaking even for day-to-day operations, that does not include major capital expenses.
For example, a Zamboni machine costs $70,000 to maintain the ice and it needs maintenance. An ice rink also needs huge dehumidification equipment, in addition to keeping the roof from leaking and painting the facility.
The key to the success has been the support of the community and that needs to continue for the center to perform its mission.
There are no membership fees and there is financial assistance provided for all the programs run by Midcoast Recreation Center, Brown pointed out. This type of assistance, however, requires ongoing fundraising and philanthropic support.
The center has what it calls the STEP (skating, tennis education) program. Private grants pay for this program, which is offered to local schools and pays for the transportation, rink time and equipment. The center also works with Pen Bay Healthcare to help provide activities for overweight children.
The people who come regularly to the recreation center are from a geographic area stretching from the Belfast area to the north and Damariscotta area to the south.
The ice rink is open from September through March or April. Camden Hills Regional High School uses the rink for its varsity and junior varsity teams.
There is also a community ice hockey team, The Ice Cats, that consists of students from Mount View, Belfast Area High School, Camden Hills, Oceanside, Medomak Valley and Lincoln Academy.
There is also a robust figure skating program, Brown said.
There are classes offered for beginners and those who want to improve their skills.
There are two shows a year, including around Christmas, which showcase local talent, he said.
In the summer, the rink is used by the Rock Coast Rollers. Those roller derbies bring in hundreds of people, noted Seth Meyer of the center.
The winter Olympics has increased the excitement about skating for users of the center this winter, recreation officials said.