There was an interesting piece of information in the news last week related to the Hines Lumber property in River Forest. It was not the contingent contract, but the fact that another company was interested in the property if the current contract fell through. While that is good news for that property, it could be bad news for the Park District of Oak Park's plans for Ridgeland Common.
The stated plans for the property by Bounce Indoor Sportsplex would be to put in a double indoor ice skating rink. If that happens, the rebuilt Oak Park rink could well become a white elephant. These new rinks would draw rentals and revenue from Ridgeland. Lower rentals would increase the park district's operating costs and will either draw from other programs or increase taxes.
Despite this, I would cheer the arrival of a new facility in this area. There is a need for more ice surfaces to meet a growing demand hockey and figure skating. I have watched for decades as local skaters have driven to Bensenville, Franklin Park, Chicago, Darien and elsewhere for opportunities to play hockey or practice figure skating. The once successful Oak Park Eagles travel hockey program merged with the Chicago Blues and moved to Bensenville 14 years ago after three new rinks were built there.
My own son played youth hockey for 14 years and only skated one year here in Oak Park. I played adult hockey for 20 years and only played in Oak Park for three years. As an ice hockey official, I routinely meet families from the Oak Park area who are skating somewhere other than Oak Park. Fenwick skates in Bensenville to meet their practice demands.
Improving Ridgeland will not resolve the ice shortage problem. It will just provide a better single rink facility. It is an economic fact that single rink facilities struggle to meet the ice requirements of the users that must share a rink. A successful rink has to be run like a business, and it needs to provide enough ice to its users or they will move elsewhere.
A rink needs a learn-to-skate program for both hockey and figure skating, an ice hockey house league program, an ice hockey travel program, a program for advanced figure skating, a high school program, a robust men's league program, open public skate and open hockey periods and ice rental for groups. A double rink facility also opens opportunities for hosting hockey tournaments and figure-skating competitions.
I have no doubt that a professionally managed double rink facility in River Forest will have programs for all of the above users and many of these users will be drawn from the current Ridgeland users. This financial loss will mask the real opportunity lost here. Ice rinks are business magnets. Hockey and figure-skating parents spend thousands of dollars on rentals and equipment just to participate. Visiting teams spend money on equipment, snacks and meals. Men's league players have been known to frequent local drinking establishments after games. Hockey tournaments and figure-skating competitions will draw families that will spend and may stay in Oak Park.
I find it ironic that Oak Park has already spent millions of dollars to just dress up our downtown area and was prepared to spend millions more to extend this street primping in hopes of drawing shoppers to Oak Park and yet could watch as an economic engine opportunity moves to another municipality.
Let's be creative! Revisit the new rink plans. Talk to Bounce Indoor Sportsplex about a public/private effort to bring a professionally managed ice rink facility to Oak Park. This could be an incredible opportunity to finally meet the needs of our locals for ice rink facilities and to bring new business to Oak Park that will pay huge dividends to the whole community for years to come.
Steve Hartmann is an Oak Park resident.