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Provo says Peaks Ice Arena could close if county stops funding it; county disagrees

PROVO — Sami Carter has a husband and two sons who play hockey, as well as a daughter taking a skating class, and every time the family bustles their way out of Peaks Ice Arena, they run into what she sees as a good problem.

"We can't even get out the door because there's such a long line of people to go public skating," she told the Deseret News.

Because "the place is packed" on a regular basis, Carter was stunned this week to receive an email from Provo city saying Utah County no longer wants to contribute its half of funding for the one-time Olympic facility, putting its future in jeopardy.

"It's just shocking to me that this is even up for consideration," Carter said.

The email was sent Tuesday to people who frequently use the building from Joshua Burkart, who is the arena's program coordinator and works for the city. He warned of a worst-case scenario.

"It essentially means that in 180 days, the doors of the Peaks Ice Arena could be closed," Burkart wrote. "The effects of this decision are far-reaching and very serious."

If the arena were to close its doors, it would mark the first closure of a facility built for the 2002 Olympics, said Fraser Bullock, who was chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Bullock said he wanted to be clear that he wasn't privy to "the particular economics" of how the arena is currently funded, but that he hopes all necessary steps are taken to maintain it as an Olympic-quality building.

"I would hope that the facility stay open of course … as a legacy of the 2002 Winter Games," he said.

Officials say the city and Utah County split the costs of the arena 50-50 on everything from personnel to maintenance. That may soon change, Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves confirmed Tuesday.

"Peaks Ice Arena is doing fantastic, but (the county) has kind of outrun its purpose. … The county can't afford to partner with every city (on recreation facilities)," Graves told the Deseret News. "We don't really feel that's the role of the commission."

Graves said Utah County issued a letter to Provo officials on March 23 indicating the county would take 180 days to attempt to transfer its 50 percent investment in the arena to another organization.

Corey Norman, Provo deputy mayor, told the Deseret News that the move could jeopardize the arena itself.

"(It) throws a bunch of things into question about what the future of the ice arena really is and what it's not and how it affects our patrons," Norman said. "I can't sit here and definitively tell you that this is going to (be) harmless to the facility."

The cost of running Peaks Ice Arena would be a "huge burden" for the city to shoulder, Norman said.

"It would really complicate our ability to maintain the same level of service that we're providing for our residents right now," he said.

But Graves said any claim that the future of the arena is in peril is "facetious" and that Provo officials are "trying to create public outcry."

In order to relinquish responsibility for the arena using the method that it wants to, he said, the county is contractually required to select a government entity or a school to take its place.

"We're trying to see if that's an option, and if not, then it's business as usual," Graves said.

Norman painted a different picture, saying if Utah County relinquishes its role, Provo will first have the option of "purchasing … them out, essentially."

If that doesn't happen, the city will be given "another period of time where we have to send this out to bid so a private company would come in to bid on it," Norman said.

He said there is no private partner that is immediately obvious as a suitable candidate for helping with the arena.

Graves told the Deseret News that Norman is correct that the county could exercise those parts of the contract as described, but added, "that's not our intentions."

The arena is also home to the club hockey teams that represent BYU and Utah Valley University.

UVU spokesman Layton Shumway said the school was not in any talks with Utah County about the arena. It was possible the school could engage in such discussions with the county in the future, Shumway said, but "as of right now, we haven't discussed it at all."

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said there's "no involvement from BYU on this" and that "it doesn't sound like" the school will involve itself in talks about the arena in the future.

Norman said he is confused as to why Utah County would want to pull out now as opposed to 10 years ago, when the arena was less successful.

Back then, Provo and Utah County were each out roughly $600,000 per year in order to keep up the facility, he said, but as "we've had a significant increase in use" and revenue from visitors has gone up, the annual cost for each the city and county has fallen to about $100,000 annually.

The county was happy to help out when it agreed with the city on a mutual role in 2008, when the two entities gained control of the day-to-day operations of Peaks Ice Arena, Graves said. But the county's role overseeing the arena has "kind of outrun its purpose," he said.

Norman disagrees. He said collected data shows about 75 to 80 percent of arena visitors come from outside the city.

The arena, completed in 1998, was privately owned until late 2008, when the city and county took over after a lengthy lawsuit. Provo and Utah County had sued for the termination of Seven Peaks Management Co.'s lease after 2003 rent due for the building was not paid on time.

Olympic legacy

"One of the things that's very unique about our (2002) Olympic Games is that every one of our facilities has been open since the games and continues to be utilized by the entire public. … We're the only Olympic city in the world of which that is true," Bullock told the Deseret News. "We've done that right."

Bullock hopes the arena will stay partly because the Olympics could very well visit the state again, he said.

"(I) believe that the Olympics will almost certainly return to Salt Lake City and Utah, (though) we don't know when," Bullock said.

Colin Hilton, president and CEO of Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, which runs the Utah Olympic Park in Park City and the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, agreed with Bullock's sentiment.

“I am confident once further discussions can be had, all parties will see the importance of continuing the … arena and surrounding region’s vibrant Olympic legacy," Hilton said in a statement. "The facility has done a fantastic job in serving a growing number of winter sport enthusiasts and is well positioned to one day host another Olympic Winter Games should the current issues be resolved.”

'An emotional day'

Brianna Hatch, a longtime instructor at Peaks Figure Skating Club, said Tuesday was "an emotional day."

"I was shaking," Hatch said. "It was definitely a shock to hear because I know it affects so many people — not only the employees but the athletes and the patrons that come."

Hatch said any closure of the arena or scaling back of its offerings would be crushing to her students.

"I know so many skaters who are devastated … because this is their home," she said. "This is the closest rink to anybody who lives in this area or anywhere south. It's definitely going to impact their training from a figure skating standpoint."

Brandon Larson, a UVU senior who helped students field a hockey team there for the first time in several years this past season, said he was "super surprised" at the warning from the city about the building's future.

The arena seemed to be "on the up and up," both for the university teams and a growing number of programs for kids, he said.

"When (UVU and BYU) play each other we get 3,500 fans out and basically fill the entire stands full of fans," Larson said. "Everyone kind of seems to be in the same boat ... trying to figure out what's going on."

Contributing: Ashley Moser, Ryan Morgan