For the first time since 1998, ice skating won't be on local families' holiday activity calendars this year.
Citing budget shortfalls and the cost of repairing ice-making equipment, the Asheville City Council voted to discontinue public skating at the Civic Center, as recommended by the Civic Center Commission.
"This was done reluctantly," Vice Mayor Jan Davis explains. "Council really didn't want to end it; the Civic Center really didn't want to end it. We made a conscious but reluctant decision not to use taxpayer dollars for this."
The venue began offering skating soon after the Asheville Smoke came to town. The hockey team couldn't cut it financially and left in 2002, but holiday skating became an annual tradition.
"The equipment is pretty much shot," notes Marcia Hart, the Civic Center's events coordinator. "There are holes in the coils." Refurbishing the machinery could cost $30,000, he estimates. Replacing it could run $100,000 or more.
Davis also points out that the Civic Center wasn't built with an ice rink in mind, and over the years, the ice has damaged the concrete floor. Costs were also incurred when holiday shows necessitated either covering or removing and replacing the ice.
"We're so lucky to attract some really big shows to Asheville," he says, citing Leonard Cohen's recent appearance and the upcoming Warren Haynes Christmas Jam and Avett Brothers show. "There was the hidden cost of missed opportunities for holiday shows that the Civic Center couldn't accommodate because of the ice rink."
Still, more than 11,000 people skated during the 25 days the rink was open last year, and in the evenings, the Asheville Hockey League used the ice. The AHL offers in-line roller skating for both adults and kids; the group also helps support a number of kids who travel to Greenville, S.C., to play on ice.
"I personally believe this was a business decision, because the ice didn't make as much money as the big shows," says Asheville hockey player Dean Pistor. The decision, he maintains, "wasn't in the best interest of the community."
Eight-year-old Ava Freeman says: "It's terrible. I guess I'll just have to sit at home and watch TV instead."
Meanwhile, some Civic Center employees will take a financial hit, as will local nonprofits that earned money running the concessions.
Both Hart and Davis say there's no ice skating in the Civic Center's future. But Davis sees opportunity in the closure.
"If the public and private sectors could come together, there could be a building built for skating. We have land, a wonderful Parks & Rec Department and a community that will support ice. I'd be happy to help facilitate looking at options," he reports.
A number of residents, says Davis, have expressed an interest in bringing back skating.
Pistor, too, hopes the city and the public can work together to create a full-time rink. He points to the Asheville-Buncombe Youth Soccer Association, whose supporters raised money and worked with the city to build the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex.
"Maybe if we have a facility, we could bring another pro-hockey team to Asheville," says Pistor. Despite the failure of both the Smoke and the Southern Professional Hockey League's Asheville Aces, which lasted only one season, he believes a dedicated rink could bring in fans from throughout the area.
"We're a mountain town, and there's a lot of demand for ice skating here. I think it's just wrong that people are going to have to drive to Greenville to skate, because that's where the nearest ice is," says Davis.