A developer at the town council’s meeting tonight will propose constructing a new $10.5 million, recreation center that includes two ice rinks to be located at the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk.
But even though the town council has yet to officially comment on it, the project has already stirred some controversy both on its merits and also the procedure its proponents have used to bring it to the public.
Indeed, Mayor Tom Delnicki, who found out about the project through a press release on Oct. 11, called the proposal “a bolt out of the blue.”
“This is one heck of a way to start a project out,” Delnicki said in a telephone interview Sunday afternoon. “This isn’t the way you come about with a successful project. … I was shocked. This is basically something that was developed in the background that, until now, was a well-kept secret.”
The project, which will be presented before the council by developer John Finguerra, includes a 35,000 square-foot community center for youths. The center, according to an e-mail obtained by South Windsor Patch, will have classrooms and an aquatic center comprising an eight-lane pool, therapy pool and diving pools.
The project, according to the e-mail, also includes two - one indoor, one outdoor - ice skating rinks; the indoor rink alone will be 38,000 square feet and will be under the same roof as the Community Center, while the outdoor rink would be about 22,000 square feet, according to the information provided.
The key, however, is that the town would enter into a public-private partnership with the developer to have the complex built near Old Navy at the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk.
The arrangement would involve the creation of a separate 501(c)(3) entity by the developer to allow the complex to be constructed with bonds at an estimated rate of about 3 percent; the complex would then be leased back to the town for 30 years for around $500,000 to $1 million per year, according to South Windsor Youth Hockey Association President Bob Feher. After 30 years, the town would buy the complex for $1.
The town would not take out bonds to pay for the project and, therefore, would not need voter approval. The loan instead would appear as a line item on the town's budget every year.
The town would pay for the lease through the revenue generated by the ice skating rink via selling ice time and the swimming complex through swimming lessons and renting out the pools, Feher said.
The rinks would be managed by a third party, while the pool complex would be staffed by the town, according to Feher.
“The only thing the town needs to do is approve a lease,” he said before stressing that “[i]t doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. It’s cost neutral.”
When asked several more times during the interview whether any additional tax revenue would be required from the town to fund the project, Feher responded “no,” citing several studies of other rinks both in and out of Connecticut. He said that the fees generated off of hockey alone would come close to covering the cost of the loan.
A perfect win/win?
Feher, who has been in discussions with Finguerra to bring the project forward (Feher noted that it was not his or the SWYHA’s project) since June or July, said that no harm was meant with the communications, or lack thereof, with the entire Town Council to date.
Despite having approached Finguerra in “June or July,” according to Feher, the stars only recently aligned - namely the notion of a lease purchase agreement with the town.
“I respect the mayor,” Feher said. “We had no intention of surprising the mayor, but quite a bit of work had to be done with the costs and financing. It took several months.”
What’s more, Feher said that Delnicki would take a more favorable stance on the project once he considered that all parties involved - the town, the seniors, the town’s children and families and not just hockey families, as well as businesses - would only benefit from the project.
Specifically, the project would free up the Charles N. Enes Center to be used exclusively as a senior center, Feher said. In addition, the new recreation center could be further used by town families if the Board of Education decides to have shortened days on Wednesdays for professional development, he said.
Feher said that the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk, and other businesses in the community, would also benefit by having visitors to the rink shop in their stores.
"All we need is someone with the political will to get it done," Feher said. "We found a way to be innovative and solve multiple community problems."
What about South Windsor Arena?
One of the major questions bandied about is why the town would even need a second skating rink complex, as it already has South Windsor Arena on John Fitch Boulevard.
Feher said that the SWYHA approached Finguerra in June or July about the possibility of constructing a rink after he said were the numerous, longstanding difficulties the SWYHA has had in dealing with the South Windsor Arena’s management.
“There has been an issue there for 40 years,” Feher said.
Feher cited high prices for ice time - he said the rink charged the SWYHA $382 for an hour last spring, the poor air quality in the facility and that the management does not work with the association on scheduling issues.
“I got serious about it when I approached rink officials to buy $10,000 of ice time and turn in time we had for Halloween and Thanksgiving,” said Feher, noting that the SWYHA has about 300 players from area towns, 70 percent of whom are from South Windsor. “Instead of taking the $7,000 of additional business, they didn’t want to work with us.”
In addition, Feher said that the boards and glass were dilapidated, and the rink air quality was substandard.
“Five kids had asthma attacks at one practice,” Feher said.
When Feher asked rink management to provide documentation about air quality, as mandated by the state, Feher said that he received information that was 20 years old.
In addition, Feher said that, despite it being rare for a town to have two ice skating facilities in town that aren’t owned by the same entity, that should not be looked upon negatively.
“When Stop & Shop came in they didn’t say, ‘We already have a Geissler’s in town,’” he said. “It’s not a valid argument, especially considering that we have had concerns with the rink for over 40 years. …
“When all is said and done, the project, numbers-wise, make sense,” Feher said, noting that CT Studios got a similar lease-purchase deal regarding the construction of the roads, lights and other infrastructure.
Questions and Concerns
While Feher is highly optimistic about the project, there still are several questions that loom large.
First, the timing of the project has at least one town councilor - Delnicki - concerned. Specifically, the presentation is being made just a few weeks prior to voters being asked five capital improvements referendum questions that, if they are all approved, will cost a combined $12 million.
“I’m concerned this will have a chilling effect on the other referendum issues,” Delnicki said. “It could have been handled better.”
What’s more, the developer has an aggressive timeline, as there is a hope to have the project completed by Aug. 1, 2013 to lay down ice for the start of the hockey season for Sept. 1, according to Feher.
"It's hard for me to believe," Feher said. "But the reality is that these are very smart guys who are saying this is very smart."
While that may be so, there are those who may not wish to move forward so quickly.
And while hardly anyone disputes that the Charles N. Enes Community Center - which houses the Senior Center and the town’s Youth Services and Parks and Recreation Department - has reached its full capacity, many thought the council was already tackling the issue.
Indeed, though it was not included as a referendum question this November, the Town Council recently charged the building committee to study the possibility of expanding the center for up to 10,000-square-feet at a cost of about $1.5 million.
“Something needs to be done with the community center,” Delnicki acknowledged, while noting that the committee is looking into it and should be given an opportunity to report back its findings.
“The committee is looking at it right now.”
Finally, Delnicki said that he was concerned what would happen if the council approved the deal.
“If we say, sure, we’ll do it for you guys, who is going to be the next one to say, ‘You’ve got to do that for me,’” Delnicki said. “I am always willing to listen, but I have some growing reservations when something like this pops out of the blue. Because of the size of the project and the large sum of money the town of South Windsor is being asked for, this should have been brought up months ago.”
The town council will meet tonight at Town Hall at 7 p.m.