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BOARD APPROVES PLAN FOR 25-YEAR ICE RINK LEASE

A $17 million ice arena project is back on track in Amherst and now must await Albany's approval of one critical detail -- the transfer of the land on which to build it.

The Town Board Monday night approved a measure empowering the town to enter into a lease of up to 25 years for the planned four-rink ice complex. Previously, the law limited the town to a 10-year lease.

The plan calls for the town to transfer title to about 12 acres at the Audubon Recreation Center to the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, which would finance construction of the arena with tax-free bonds and lease it back to the town.

But the Assembly still has to approve the transfer of the town-owned land to the Amherst IDA. The State Senate has approved the bill, but town officials said there is no indication of when the Assembly may act.

If the bill doesn't pass the Assembly during this legislative session, "the project in its current form is effectively over; it's back to the drawing board," Amherst Council Member James P. Hayes told more than 100 people at the board meeting.

A new project would throw the timetable off several months, he said, making it unlikely the new rinks would be open a year from September.

In a 5-2 vote, the Town Board extended the lease limit from 10 to 25 years, with Council Members Thomas A. Loughran and Bill Kindel opposed.

The vote brought loud applause from a pro-ice rink crowd that, for about an hour, had pressed the board to end months of debate over various options and get on with a project that can be ready by September 1998.

Minutes earlier, another 5-2 vote defeated a bid by Loughran and Kindel to end nearly two months of negotiations with the Edgewater/Delaware North development and to open talks with the Allied Group, the second choice of an ice rink committee.

Defeat of the 25-year lease would have killed the current plan, which calls for lease payments of that length to retire the debt, officials said. The town couldn't be the guarantor on 25-year bonds if it were restricted to a lease agreement of no more than 10 years, they explained.

Board members have had plenty of time to gather all the information, weigh the pros and cons of various development schemes, and choose the best, speakers said Monday. "We expect you to make a decision and to make it now," Amherst Hockey Association official Mike Lucey told the board.

Earlier, women and children with signs reading "Politics Stink, We Need New Rinks" and "Talk Is Nice, But We Need Ice" paraded outside Town Hall. Ice time is so scarce in Amherst that one young hockey player who played in 78 games this season played only eight of those games in Amherst, one hockey parent told the board. Other parents told of regularly getting up before dawn, or driving to rinks outside Amherst because of the ice shortage.

"Make the same commitment we do for six months out of the year -- build the rink," said Brian Charlton of Ransom Oaks.

The next step is a public hearing by the Amherst IDA on the bond financing at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall. Assuming no further hitches, the Town Board then would be ready to review three contracts that would actually get the project under way, Hayes said.

Town officials say that if the new rinks aren't ready for the 1998-99 season, Amherst will be running a growing risk of costly breakdowns at its two aging one-rink facilities at the Audubon and Clearfield recreation centers.

Loughran and Kindel said they want the new rinks as much as anyone, but not at any cost and not if the complex will be a legal and financial burden on taxpayers for years to come. Kindel said normal people would exercise caution on a project if they spotted one or two warning signs. "Well, I've seen seven or eight on this one," he said.

But the town's negotiating team endorsed the Amherst IDA/Edgewater/Delaware North development scheme, calling it a "viable, practical and responsible." Meanwhile, Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman said that although there are some "very difficult" and complicated issues involved, "it is a project that can work."

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