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Eugene ice rink on the brink.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

As a hockey player with the Eugene Generals, Neil Holder knows all the ins and outs of the rink at the Lane County Ice Center in Eugene.

The ice is uneven and raised in spots. Some of the boards lining the rink are uneven, too, which makes a difference when you're slamming somebody into them. Holder doesn't mind the eccentricities - "they're home field advantages you can use," the 19-year-old from Harrisburg said.

But those little details hint at a big, expensive problem with the rink's foundation, Lane Events Center Director Rick Reno said recently. And that leads to big questions about the future of the ice center itself.

The county will close the ice center for about five months after the Generals finish their season next March. That will allow officials to assess an ongoing problem with "permafrost," a frozen layer of dirt under the rink that could heave and crack the rink ice, Reno said.

The repair could cost $1 million to $3 million, and the fairgrounds has only about $200,000 in savings for such work, Reno said.

Expensive repairs at the 20-year-old ice center are only the latest to get attention among the problems at the fairgrounds west of downtown, called the Lane Events Center. Many of the buildings are more than 50 years old and it would cost $13 million to bring all structures up to current standards, Reno said.

But the county has a tough enough time finding the cash to keep the fairgrounds going year to year, let alone saving up for big capital projects to improve the complex.

The fairgrounds' ability to pay for major repairs and improvements is tied to use of the grounds - including the annual county fair - and revenue from the local hotel-room tax.

The county has routinely dipped into the tax revenue to shore up the cost of fairgrounds operation. In 2009-2010, for example, the fairgrounds expects to receive $900,000 in hotel-tax revenue - and to spend up to $650,000 of it on operations, budget manager David Garnick said.

About 80 percent of the revenue for the fairgrounds' $4.4 million operating budget comes from convention center rental and the annual fair. Fluctuations in rentals and fair profits can put pressure on officials to use the hotel-tax revenue to cover operating losses.

Reno said he plans within the next 12 months to report to the county board on the fairgrounds' challenges, and to get direction - if not money - for any improvements that the commissioners want throughout the 55-acre complex.

One question, Reno said, is what to do with the ice center, which will lose about $200,000 this fiscal year while serving a relatively small community of hockey players and other skaters.

The commissioners have historically shrugged off fairgrounds losses, arguing that the complex has a value to the public not to be measured in dollars and cents. "But at some point," Reno said, "you have to start looking at whether the cost is worth the utilization."

The ice center might have more value as a multi-use arena that houses not just the skating rink, but dirt-track or family events and concerts, Reno said.

One group committed to having ice at the fairgrounds is the Eugene Generals, a four-year-old organization that is starting to see success in the Northern Pacific junior hockey league, said Flint Doungchak, the team's general manager.

The team turned its first profit last year and expects to do so again this year. Attendance is expected to be up this year, projected at 450 to 500 per game, Doungchak said.

In addition to the team's value as a tourism draw and renter of space at the fairgrounds, the Generals provide an environment in which young hockey players can learn the game and work to earn college scholarships and professional hockey contracts, Doungchak said.

Holder and 20-year-old goalie Dylan Woodring of Eugene said they're trying to get noticed by scouts who could land them college scholarships. Both said losing the ice center would force them to move to other cities with rinks, or to rethink their futures.

But the real loss, Woodring said, would be for youth with nowhere else to skate.

"Some kids, this is all they have," Woodring said. "It would be heart-breaking for some people."
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Title Annotation:Government Local; Expensive repairs beneath the Lane County Ice Center threaten the 20-year-old hockey and ice skating venue
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 14, 2009

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