Volunteer labor last chance for county ice rink

Oct 22, 2014

Credit Tom Carr

We’ve all heard of pay-to-play sports. Well, for Cadillac recreation league hockey players it’s work-to-play. That’s because it is now up to them to keep their county-owned hockey rink open.

Volunteers are also helping several other counties and cities around Michigan and elsewhere in this era of tight budgets.

Eric Gustafson, for instance, could have been working around the house on a recent Saturday. Instead, he stepped into what feels like a refrigerator with classic rock blaring.

Gustafson joined a line of men draping a hose over their shoulders to spray a mist of white paint on a thin layer of ice.

“You know, it’s a team sport,” Gustafson says. “So to have an opportunity to come in here with everybody else, you kind of have to come together and do it."

“You know, it’s a team sport,” Gustafson says. “So to have an opportunity to come in here with everybody else, you kind of have to come together and do it.”

These 30 or so volunteers, mostly hockey players, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Depending on the task, as many as 100 people get involved, drawing from adult and youth leagues, male and female.

A citizens group called Boon Sports Management now runs every aspect of the county-owned rink attached to the Wexford Civic Center.

The county and the group signed a four-year contract last spring.

In it, the private group must do everything from sharpen skates to clean locker rooms to drive the Zamboni in an effort to keep it in the black.

Mike Figliomeni is spokesman for Boon Sports Management.

“Everything it takes to manage and operate that facility, our group will do,” he says.

Wexford County, meanwhile, will ratchet its contribution down to $50,000 per year.

It used to be at least twice that much, but the county says it can’t afford to pick up a six-figure tab anymore.

So in addition to saving money, volunteers have to help make money.

They’ll be running concessions, helping determine user fees and marketing and booking events.

In the past, an East Coast management company oversaw the rink from its Detroit-area office.

Now, there are two local employees, the rink manager and a part-time assistant.

Manager Todd Foster says he couldn’t run the rink, let alone lay down the ice, without the volunteers.

“Typically around ice rinks, hockey players, figure skaters, they’re really passionate people,” Foster says. “They really care about the game. They really care about the rink. People want to help. It’s their rink. They take ownership in it.”
 

Officials estimate that doing the ice themselves saves a few thousand dollars.

Right now, the people helping out are excited about the upcoming hockey and figure skating seasons.

They’re also revved up by the recent fears of losing their rink.

Several cities and counties around the country have used volunteers in recent years to meet shrinking budgets or expand services at little cost to taxpayers.

Unpaid citizens have mowed lawns in parks and done other maintenance.

But it’s not always free, says Brian Namey, spokesman for the National Association of Counties.

“You know, we can’t just provide a chainsaw to a volunteer and ask him or her to go to work with it.”

It’s up to the local government to provide training.

The Wex recently hosted a trainer to teach a few citizens to drive the Zamboni.

Mike Wilson, who volunteers and plays hockey regularly at age 72, doesn’t believe the volunteerism here is just a passing thing.

In order to keep it going for the years to come, these get-togethers will have to happen on a regular basis.

“It’s more than just hockey here. This is a viable part of the community,” Wilson says. “We can’t lose this. We have to keep this going.”

Next month, Wexford voters will decide on a millage to pay for major repairs and maintenance for the civic center.

But it won’t pay for the day to day operations, keeping the lights on and the ice frozen.

That’s up to the people who skate here.