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FITCHBURG - Ice hockey and skating clubs are fuming over Fitchburg State University President Robert V. Antonucci's decision Wednesday to convert the aging Landry Arena at the Wallace Civic Center it operates into a year-round recreational facility - minus the ice.
Mr. Antonucci said the 44-year-old Landry Arena on John Fitch Highway has operated at a deficit for years as an ice surface, and is in need of significant capital investments. Converting the free-standing Landry Arena into an all-season recreational facility and maximizing use of the Gaetz Arena - located inside the Civic Center itself in addition to banquet and meeting rooms, and a planetarium - will preserve the long-term viability of the entire complex, he said.
Though Mr. Antonucci said the Landry will remain accessible to the public, Eric L. Short, the Lunenburg High hockey coach and Twin Cities Youth Hockey mite director, said the most needy kids who cannot afford to travel outside Fitchburg to get ice time will likely suffer the most.
"It is extremely disappointing," Mr. Short said. "There were ongoing efforts by users to come up with solutions to keep it viable, but Fitchburg State hasn't really entertained any of them."
He said with both the Gaetz and Landry arenas operational, it is difficult to get ice time, especially during hockey season, when both arenas are used heavily by the FSU men's hockey team, as well as home ice for the Fitchburg, Leominster, Lunenburg, St. Bernard's, Nashoba and North Middlesex high school teams.
"There is not enough ice," he said. "Going down to one rink, something has to give."
He said he fears that will be ice time for the kids in the Twin Cities Youth Hockey program, and other hockey and skating programs for the area's low-income families.
Data from a feasibility study initiated by FSU to look at the long-term viability of the Wallace Civic Center complex, with particular attention to Landry Arena, did not include kids from those programs because they are not registered with USA Hockey, Mr. Short said.
"The numbers (in the study) show a downward trend, but they don't include intramural and house hockey programs," he said. "Those kids only get to play one game a week against each other and they don't travel. The data that indicates a downward trend is not really true because it is not inclusive. There are a couple of hundred players not registered. They should have contacted Twin Cities Youth Hockey. There is not enough ice for everybody. If these kids have to travel, they are less likely to play. That is why Twin Cities started these programs. Hockey is expensive."
Moreover, the Save the Landry Arena Association - Mr. Short is a member - raised over $100,000, he said.
"We raised 250 hours of ice time," he said. "Current users agreed to rent more ice (during off-peak times) to keep it open."
However, the report released Wednesday by FSU says FMC Ice Sports - which manages 23 skating facilities statewide, including Fitchburg, Auburn, Worcester, Marlboro and Gardner - spent years on marketing and promotional efforts to secure commitments for additional ice time at Landry Arena, without success.
The study is online at http://bit.ly/1imOvPB.
"The numbers are also clear that demand for ice time is on a downward trend, despite claims to the contrary," said Matthew J. Bruun, director of public relations for FSU. "FMC reached out to groups that had reportedly pledged to reserve more ice time, but none of them followed through with commitments."
According to Mr. Bruun, even if additional funds could be raised to offset annual operating losses, the Landry would still need more than $2 million to continue functioning as an ice rink. The state signed a 99-year lease on behalf of FSU to assume operations of the Wallace Civic Center in 2007, Mr. Bruun said. The university then spent $3.1 million renovating it and the Gaetz Arena.
"The one-rink solution we are adopting preserves the long-term viability of the complex, which would have closed years ago without the university's involvement," Mr. Bruun said.
Leominster resident Kimberly A. Tocci, president of the Wallace Figure Skating Club, said its 100 members from Fitchburg, Leominster, Lunenburg, Townsend, Pepperell and other communities would have to travel to Ashburnham or Gardner for ice time. Many families would not do that, she said.
Michael S. Nelson, also a member of the Save the Landry group, said members are prepared to "go the distance" in fighting FSU's decision. He alleges that since 2007, when the city gave the college the lease, FSU planned to close the ice rink.
"They need recreation space for their students," he said. "They are taking the children who use the Landry faithfully on a daily basis and they are throwing them out in the proverbial cold and giving them no place to skate and play hockey. George Wallace must be rolling over in his grave. We're not packing it in at this point. There are legal issues in the original lease agreement."
Jon A. Ricciutti, chair of the city's Parks Board, said commissioners feel the city still owns the property and is seeking a ruling on the issue from the City Solicitor. He added that the original lease states the Landry Arena can only be used as a skating rink.
However, Mr. Bruun said the 99-year lease was reviewed at length by state and local officials.
"The plan we have adopted preserves community access to the entire facility and maintains a public ice surface," he said. "We are confident the actions we are taking, designed to keep the entire complex viable, are well within the scope of the lease."
Before FSU stepped in, Mr. Bruun said, the Civic Center had been slated to close as the city was not in a position to invest in repairs.
State officials were unwilling at the time to commit significant funds for renovating the structure unless there was a change in management, he added.
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