Only one set of circumstances can justify a municipality owning and managing a business such as an ice rink: if the demand exists, if no one else will do it, and if the taxpayers don’t mind.
Those are the issues that Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein wants to explore as his last year in office unfolds. The town owns four such rinks at the Northtown Center and never does better than to break even. The current deficit is $800,000. In that context, he wisely wants to explore the possibilities of privatizing the complex.
If a private operator is interested, it would make sense to unload the facilities. Taxpayers would no longer be subsidizing the rinks; users would pay to skate.
Weinstein knows he cannot finish this task before his term ends, but he is proceeding with efforts to narrow the deficit, which is related to debt service payments from the 1998 construction of the complex. If that is not possible, he concedes further action will fall to his successor.
Rink managers doubt that a private operator can run the facility more efficiently than the town. Maybe they’re right. But the theory needs to be tested.
In general, governments should only offer services that the private sector won’t or can’t. There are exceptions, such as policing, education and road-building. Public parks are also a legitimate public expense. But skating rinks? That’s thinner ice. Weinstein is right to want to test it.
That would be true in any municipality in any state, but in New York, where the cumulative tax burden is the nation’s highest, governments should not be taking on unnecessary expenses. There is reason to suspect it’s true.
Demand for ice time at the Northtown Center is so great that the town wants to build a fifth rink and seek a developer for a hotel. That’s because the center has been so successful at attracting users.
Last year, the center drew 582 hockey teams from outside Western New York and 10,616 participants for on-ice events, according to the center’s general manager, Eric W. Guzdek. That produced 13,690 hotel-room nights and a $15.5 million economic impact.
That’s impressive, but it only goes to suggest that the center could operate well in private hands. An obvious analogy, even if it’s imperfect, is to the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo. It attracts out-of-town tournaments, too, and plenty of users. Yet its two rinks and hotel are owned not by the City of Buffalo, but by Terry and Kim Pegula.
Finding a private operator buyer for the Northtown Center is a different issue from whether one should be sought. But first things first. Weinstein’s instincts are correct on this. Investigate, then determine how or if to proceed.