Wichita plans to sell downtown ice rinks

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After months of complaints about the Wichita Ice Center, City Hall put it up for sale.

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The Wichita Eagle

After months of complaints about the Wichita Ice Center, City Hall is offering the facility for sale.

As the current Genesis Health Clubs Ice Center management contract comes to an end, a City Request for Proposal has been issued titled “Sale OR Professional Management for Wichita Ice Center”.

Even Mayor Brandon Whipple was among those surprised that city staff accepted offers from private companies to purchase the ice center, rather than simply running it under continued city ownership.

“What are we doing? We are selling the rink?” Whipple said when contacted by a reporter. “My understanding was to go out for potential management contracts. I know we have received complaints. regarding current management … so I think going out there and seeing what the management contract market is was smart, but I didn’t feel like we were looking to sell it.

Whipple said he would need many questions answered before he could possibly support the sale of the Ice Center at 505 W. Maple, directly across from the city’s new $ 75 million Riverfront Stadium baseball park.

“It’s a taxpayer funded asset,” Whipple said. “It is used by residents of this city who, if privatized, may not be able to afford to use it. ”

City manager Robert Layton said the offer to sell tested the waters more than a concerted effort to sell the ice skating facility. The call for proposals was developed in collaboration with the main users of the facility, including fans of hockey, figure skating and speed skating.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to be receiving any offers in this regard and the user group would be part of the review committee to determine if there was an offer, whether the city would or not,” Layton said. “I think what will happen is that we will receive proposals for the management of the facility.”

If someone were to buy the Ice Center, it would come with a long list of conditions, the main one being that it continues to be open to the public and offers hourly rates, Layton said.

Under current Genesis management, both rinks are open to the public while Genesis operates a primarily member-based health club on the second floor.

In August of last year, hockey player and referee John Ford circulated an online petition calling for an end to Genesis’ management of the Ice Center, which has garnered more than 2,700 signatures.

The main complaint was about maintenance: lights out, worn and stained windows and dashboards around the rinks, player benches with rotten floors, game clocks and scoreboards that have been inoperable for years or break down during games. matches.

Ford is now part of the user group advising the city on the request for proposals for the Ice Center as a representative of the Wichita Adult Hockey League. The group also includes representatives from local youth hockey, referees, figure skating and speed skating associations, he said.

Ford said it was not concerned that the RFP invited bids on the sale of the center and that users supported the inclusion of this eventuality.

“I am not opposed to it,” he said. “I was also in shock when I first heard it.”

But after lengthy talks with Layton and park manager Troy Houtman, “they made a good point. Just because it’s an option doesn’t mean it’s the option we choose and it would be remiss to say we won’t even consider it. ”

Genesis would appear to be at least near the top of the list of companies that could bid to buy the center, which would give Genesis ownership of the rinks and the health club. Rodney Steven, the president and owner of Genesis, could not be reached for comment.

Steven and his brother Brandon are co-owners of the Wichita Thunder minor hockey team, which trains at the center.

Houtman said two potential bidders showed up for a pre-proposal meeting and a tour of the facility – Genesis and another company he would not disclose.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s all that’s interested because I would say, aside from Genesis, there are dozens of other out-of-state companies that have expressed interest in being a part of the. rink management, ”Houtman said.

Despite his criticism of Steven’s management of the ice facility, Ford has said he could accept Genesis as a buyer if the conditions are right.

“The RFP was something that we refined to make sure it was something we wanted as a user group,” said Ford. “Not to exclude the Stevens, but they should certainly have a very good proposal to buy this facility, given that they have the last 10 or 11 years of running the facility and it hasn’t been managed in the past. better from the community. satisfaction. ”

The request for proposals was not submitted to the park council or city council for approval.

Layton said he discussed it with “all elected officials” before it was released.

Board member Jeff Blubaugh, who represents the district that includes the Ice Center, said Layton informed him in a one-on-one meeting that there would be a put option in the RFP, but added: was already there.

“I didn’t know about it until people started asking me questions,” he said. “Years ago I asked about this and the city manager told me we couldn’t sell the facility because it was provided by a federal grant. I was a little surprised to hear this (the center was for sale) because I was always told that we could not sell it.

The Ice Center spans 5.7 acres and features a large, visible Kellogg billboard and a 532-space parking lot.

The city is looking for a buyer who “offers the highest value and the most beneficial future use of the property”. The purchase would be subject to a list of restrictive covenants.

The ice center cost about $ 8.3 million to build in 1996 and the city has spent about $ 1 million on upgrades since, according to the proposal document.

The most recent Sedgwick County tax assessment puts the property at $ 5.9 million.

The Genesis contract expires in January. Houtman said the city wants to have a plan in place to ensure it continues to operate after this.

The reason for the potential sale, Houtman said, was “a huge suggestion and outcry from stakeholders using it who really want to see an opportunity to see which other sellers would be interested in operating the rink.” .

Alternatively, the city could approve a new management agreement and lease the ice center to a private operator, who would have to meet the criteria outlined in the 49 points included in the RFP, including a provision that would require all health clubs to be open to the public.

Although Genesis is primarily a membership operation, the company’s clubs are open to non-members for a daily fee of $ 15.

The call for tenders also specifies that a private manager will have to maintain the physical appearance of the installation, pay all operating costs and take care of interior and exterior maintenance.

“What we’re looking for are all the options,” Houtman said. “And, ultimately, what will be the best case scenario for stakeholders when it comes to rink operations.

“Ultimately, we are looking for the best system that will benefit our stakeholders,” Houtman said. They were intimately, very involved. When we released the RFP, it was reviewed by our stakeholders, so it’s really in their hands. It’s really from them because that’s what they want.

“Stakeholders” include ice hockey users, figure skaters and representatives of ice sports organizations at the rink, Houtman said. No elected official was involved in drafting the RFP, he said.

Houtman said the city’s selection committee, which was not chosen, will include representatives from user groups and a member of the park’s board of directors.

The committee will interview interested parties in late October and November. A city council vote would follow in December.

This story was originally published October 7, 2021 4:09 am.

Senior reporter Dion Lefler has provided award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion is originally from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other newspapers. He is a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries for The United Methodist Church, and plays second base for the Old Cowtown baseball team.

Chance Swaim, George Polk Award-winning investigative journalist, has worked with The Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @byChanceSwaim.


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