"Bubble’ on the rebound
Sharpen the skates and set the alarm clocks.
The embattled Vail Ice Dome, also known as the “Bubble,” is set for reinflation next month after the Vail Town Council approved allocating funds to set-up and tear-down the temporary ice rink again this winter, at an estimated cost of $190,000.
The temporary ice rink is now set for its fourth winter season on the Vail Golf Course’s driving range. The money will come out of the town’s budgets for 2003 and 2004.
“We’re never going to decide today if we’re serving the right people,” said Councilman Bill Jewitt. “We need to concentrate on whatever we have to pay to put the Bubble up.”
The Vail Ice Dome – a white, 27,000-square-foot, 35-foot-high, inflated temporary structure once likened to “a beached whale” – was purchased for $770,000 by the town in 2000 as a temporary place to skate while Dobson Ice Arena underwent extensive repairs to its refrigeration system. Since then, the Bubble’s place in the community has been controversial – even challenged in court by adjacent neighbors, who said it was unsightly and would decrease local property values by hiding their “hallelujah view” of the Gore Range.
Some Town Council members have long said the bubble was a bad investment that yields little return. Others – like Greg Moffet, who has two girls participating in local ice skating programs and has been one of the temporary rink’s most vocal supporters since its purchase by the town in 2000 – have insisted it’s all about how the town markets the rink and maximizes its use.
“I want the Bubble to go up because I’m tired of seeing 10-year-olds getting up at 5 a.m. to skate, like at my house,” Moffet said last week, referring to scheduling conflicts with Dobson Arena and the high demand for ice time at certain times of the day.
The dome’s return this winter appeared to be in jeopardy. Officials with the Vail Recreation District announced last spring they could no longer afford the cost to inflate and deflate the Bubble every year. Citing downvalley competition – namely from a new ice rink in Eagle operated by the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District – they insisted user numbers are dwindling and the demographics no longer support a second ice rink in Vail.
“The public doesn’t skate at the Bubble. There’s no amenities there,” Peter Cook, a recreation district board member, said last week, adding the temporary rink had excess ice time last season and predicting its use will continue to decline as a new ice rink in Eagle comes online. “It’s meant for overflow hockey.”
Indeed, the valley’s junior hockey community is the primary user of the ice rink. The Vail Junior Hockey Club even committed last spring to assume a “stewardship role” to assure the Bubble’s return. With an enrollment of 250 young hockey players, the club’s director, Kirk Hansen, had said the organization hoped to raise enough money in private contributions to cover at least $100,000 of the Bubble’s installation expenses. The hockey club, he said, already was already paying $600 a month to store the facility during the off-season.
However, in a memo issued to the Town Council last week, the group said it would not be able to contribute to the set-up costs – drawing expressions of frustration from the council members, who complained about the lack of funding partners. Some said the town should consider asking Eagle County or the local school district for funding.
Councilwoman Diana Donovan said it’s visitors to Vail, through the payment of sales taxes, that should continue to provide amenities, such as ice rinks, for local residents.
“Our goal is to bring people to town,” she said, adding that a desire to host hockey tournaments and other recreational activities that draw visitors to Vail should be embraced by the town and the recreation district.
“Fifty percent of our revenues come from sales taxes,” added Councilman Chuck Ogilby. “We need to cater to guests, whether they are from Edwards, Denver or New York City.”
A permanent solution
The recreation district’s former director, Piet Pieters, once said the bubble could be erected and taken down for far less money, about $10,000 a year, if a concrete base – complete with compressors and refrigeration modules – were installed and hidden under a 4-inch layer of sod in the summer. The initial cost of that, about $100,000, would be half the yearly expense of the current, temporary system.
Ogilby said he has supported that idea all along.
“There needs to be a five-year plan that would involve permanently installing the equipment and saving that money every year,” he said. “It needs to have some life to it.”
– September 2000 – Vail purchased the temporary, inflatable $770,000 ice rink as back-up for scheduling strains at Dobson Ice Arena.
– October 2000 – Seventy-six golf course neighbors appeal rezoning for the “Bubble,” but the Town Council denies the appeal and approves operating the it on the Vail Golf Course’s driving range two winters. Appellants then win temporary injunction, halting installation, but a judge then lifts the injunction, binding the case over for trial.
– November and December 2000 – Installation is delayed by weather and litigation.
– January 2001 – Bubble opens for the first time, three months behind schedule.
– April 2001 – Bubble comes down for summer season.
– November 2001 – Bubble is back for second winter season.
– January 2002 – Judge rules the town of Vail failed to properly notify public of rezoning process, declaring the rezoning moot and ordering the Bubble be removed.
– April 2002 – Bubble comes down; two-season permit expires.
– November 2002 – Council changes conditional uses for golf course zoning district to include “seasonal structures.” Bubble set-up commences.
– December 2002, January 2003 – Vail Recreation District board members say bubble not cost-efficient, threaten to refuse paying for the annual set-up and break-down costs, estimated then at $120,000.
– April 2003 – Council considers selling the Bubble.
– September 2003 – Council allocates $190,OOO to pay for set-up and tear-down costs of the Bubble for the 2003-04 season.