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Despite several recent openings of local ice rinks, Amherst considers need for a fifth

When HarborCenter opened downtown last year – followed by the debut of Cornerstone Ice Arena in the City of Lockport – speculation was that the new ice rinks would hurt business in Amherst, which operates four rinks of its own.

But Amherst insists that hasn’t been the case.

In fact, the town has resurrected the idea of adding a fifth rink at the Northtown Center at Amherst, its municipal complex off Maple Road.

A committee is now looking into whether that makes sense. It’s in the process of updating a 2011 rink study commissioned by Amherst Youth Hockey and will present its findings to the Town Board by mid-June.

“I can absolutely understand why people would be scratching their heads and saying, ‘Another rink?’ ” said Eric Guzdek, general manager of the Northtown Center.

But, Guzdek said, despite the added competition in the Buffalo market, the Northtown Center still can’t meet all the demand for ice time in Amherst.

Youth hockey is going strong, he said. There’s a waiting list for premium ice time. The Amherst Skating Club wants to grow. More events are added at Northtown each year and the public would like more time for open skating.

Meanwhile, he said, HarborCenter is growing its own programs and tournaments. If anything, Guzdek said, Northtown has complemented HarborCenter.

The Amherst facility, for example, provided additional practice space for teams participating during the recent Sledge Hockey World Championships and Women’s under-18 World Championships held at HarborCenter, the facility developed by Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula and his wife, Kim.

“The initial reaction when the Pegulas were building HarborCenter was ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to lose all these user groups,’ ” said Councilmember Guy R. Marlette, who proposed the review for a fifth rink, “but, in a sense, these are two different types of venues. We haven’t seen a drop in our usage. Even with all this ice time that has come on the market, we are still basically sold out of ice time.”

The Amherst Youth & Recreation Department is still compiling the data that would support the need for a fifth rink, but officials indicated the town rented 14,408 hours of ice time at Northtown Center last year. Amherst Youth Hockey is the facility’s top user, followed by Amherst Skating Club, Performax Hockey League, Western New York Roller Hockey and USA Hockey, which brings in national camps and tournaments.

The study should also assist the town in determining whether a fifth rink would draw more regional and national events to the area, which would help foot the bill for the project.

Cost, of course, is going to be an issue.

Amherst built the four-rink facility during the late 1990s for more than $18 million. By the end of 2014, Amherst was still carrying $9.1 million in debt on the facility, town figures show.

This isn’t the first time a fifth rink has been proposed.

Amherst Youth Hockey raised the issue a few years ago. Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein twice in the past two years proposed adding a fifth rink, but the idea never gained traction among his colleagues on the Town Board.

Weinstein wanted to offset taxpayer costs by selling town land near the Northtown Center to a private developer to build an adjacent hotel. The supervisor also wanted to involve the University at Buffalo, although a Division I hockey program has not been on the table at the university.