Real Estate Q&A: Skating On Thin Ice?

This Real Estate Q&A will appear in the Memorial Day Weekend issue of The Sheet

Q: We’re watching the ice rink debate here in Mammoth. So where do you think the ice rink should be in Mammoth?

A: The whole ice rink drama in Mammoth has a precarious history interwoven with public planning, real estate and politics. First, let me say that a quality mountain resort community should have a first-rate ice rink, a facility that gets used by a wide swath of residents and visitors. It should be a focal point of the community and something the community can be proud of, not just the expensive play toy for a small special interest group.

The ice rink belongs right where Eldon Beck (the father of modern alpine villages) and the 1993-94 version of the Specific Plan envisioned it in North Village. I dusted off my copy and there it is conceived for the land where the existing parking lot is. And right where they think they are going to build a successful timeshare project. In the Plan it is labeled an “Events Arena.” It was suppose to be the jewel of North Village and serve as a multi-purpose facility that could also operate as a convention and concert hall. Like a small Staples Center with levels of public parking underneath it. Economically, it was envisioned to help smooth out the shoulder seasons for the Village bed base (and fill empty airline seats) and bolster the local economy. It would be used by a wide variety of people.

The concept was that this facility would be funded by a combination of developer “exactions” (impact fees), potential bonds, and special taxes like our current TBID. It was one of the reasons we tried to do a redevelopment district in North Village. Beck knew there were ways to make it happen with public/private deal making. But the opportunity was missed. When the time came to make it happen, the public and private leadership in town simply didn’t believe in the importance of the vision. I believe this failure in leadership is one of the reasons Intrawest bailed on the whole Mammoth plan; the community’s leaders didn’t have the guts to make big things happen. Dr. Phil would call it “a defining moment.”

Without this centerpiece facility, the Village has no momentum for real future growth. The outdoor plaza just isn’t compelling enough. Beck knew this. He had seen it before. He knew what makes a village real and what makes it faux. That is where the ice rink really belongs.

Twenty years ago a group of starry-eyed Town officials (I was one of them) traveled the state looking at multi-purpose facilities. We learned that a small community like Mammoth has to have joint-use multi-purpose facilities; they have to be shared by different people and different interests and activities. It is a function of small demographics and a limited economy. We also learned that facilities need to be locationally aligned with the users. Beck believed that the local residents needed to be drawn into the Village in order to make it successful (20+ years later we have the proof). And the ice rink and events arena would drive that.

But the real question today is where does the ice rink belong in the “long term” interim? There is plenty of good argument for leaving it where it is. Gary Myers and Greg Newbry are two long-time residents that I would listen to based on their experience. Their letters were in the recent Council agenda package supporting the present location. Myers doesn’t see the financial sense of relocating it.  As long-time CEO of Mammoth Hospital I think he understands local math. He also expressed the value of the proximity to the schools. And he’s seen grandiose (hospital) plans wither into simple efficiency.

Newbry prefers the existing location too for the proximity to the schools, to many local residents, and the main commercial district in town. He refers to it as the need for “a town core.” As a former School Board member (and Councilman from long ago) and former County planner, he finds it unfortunate that the Town and District can’t come to a mutually beneficial lease arrangement.

So can the School District be negotiable? It seems like it and they really should be. Nobody wants to point out that the School District spent a small fortune on a football field that probably gets less usage than the ice rink (and Mammoth property owners are still paying for it on their tax bills). Maybe we deserve a sweetheart deal. And how many second homeowners use the football field?

The Mammoth Creek Park West location is a very nice one. My personal comments to the Town Council and Parks Commission were primarily concerned with the visual aspects of the project. I went and took a casual look at the ice rink and it reminded me of a prison yard (not that I have spent much time in a prison yard, but that is what it evoked). I even shot some photos and sent them along with my comments (a photo really is worth a thousand words). To put the prison yard look at Mammoth Creek West (or East) would be an abomination. Certainly it wouldn’t past muster at the environmental review stage. But resort aesthetics just don’t seem to be a priority anymore (just look at all the crappy signage in town). Once Elizabeth Tenney is gone, Mammoth Lakes seems destined to aesthetic infamy. Thankfully we have the glorious mountains to distract us.

To relocate the ice rink to the Mammoth Creek Park location is a costly proposition. And it will be even more costly to satisfy the adjacent property owners. This is ground zero for NIMBYism in Mammoth. And probably for good reason. Mammoth Creek is one of the finest natural amenities in the area. We seem to forget that. The Native Americans knew. Tom Dempsey knew. But most Mammoth residents seem to take it for granted like another contrived landscape feature.

The true cost to move the ice rink and make the new package meet reasonable environmental standards (including visual impacts) is likely to be well over $2 million dollars. The cost is high for enclosing all of the working parts of the ice rink within a building to suppress chiller and operational noise, etc.. And to address all of the visual impacts for the surrounding residences. Chain link fencing is cheap compared to the adequate walls or fencing that a proper environmental review should require. And these projects always have cost overruns (twice as much, twice as long?). The Town needs to get real on the true cost. There are additional costs for making the facility truly useable and functional in the non-skating months (joint-use, multi-purpose). The math doesn’t make sense, especially if a new (and favorable) lease with the School District can be negotiated.

But there is a bigger question about the Mammoth Creek Park alternative; is this a park or is this parcel a future site for a large community facility? And doesn’t it make sense to align large community facilities with the schools? Shouldn’t we get back to planning basics? More disregard for the planning basics we learned years ago; joint-use, multi-purpose.

There is another alternative that is starting to be discussed; just get rid of the ice rink entirely. I’m not supporting, but I might. The Council needs to weigh all the alternatives. Maybe we can sell it on Ebay and return the money to the general fund. Let the School District have their land back for their future day care center. I’m sure this idea will piss some people off. Maybe the hockey players need to be told the truth, “We’re in a recession and a drought and we’re strapped with something we can’t afford, we have other priorities.” If the skaters really want it maybe they need to find a corporate sponsor or benefactor. That has become the way of the world. This is a big chunk of expenditure and land for a small special interest group.

The reality is special interest groups get cut-out all the time. Why doesn’t the Town subsidize the motocross track operation? The swimmers want a deluxe indoor pool, but that cost is far beyond what the Town can afford (maybe forever). Every special interest group wants their pet project. I’d like the Town to clean up all the horse droppings on my favorite trails so I can enjoy them again without asphyxiating. And does the Town subsidize anybody’s downhill skiing?

In all the discussion nobody has the guts to admit the Town got persuaded by a fanatic special interest group to fund something it probably can’t afford on their own. Especially not now after the airport fiasco and drought winters. Government budgets are tight everywhere. They will only get tighter. Ice rinks are a true luxury without outside help and a solid transient bed base around them generating special tax (that is what Eldon Beck knew). And having joint-use and multi-purpose.

It is time for the public and public officials to have an epiphany that Mammoth Lakes has limited cash resources and land. The Town’s private land holdings are minimal, and most are surrounded by residential property who have had decades of “quiet enjoyment” and will fight to keep it. And does it benefit the public good that these parcels get allocated to special interests?

In the long term this issue probably does need to go back to the future development community. If it really is that important. All of the vacant development land will never be built on in our lifetimes. Not with all the remaining Village parcels, Lodestar, Eagle Base, the Main Lodge, etc.. Maybe there is a deal to be made. The original wrong can be righted, and needs to be righted.

In many ways Mammoth is back to basics in 2015. The community has made great progress the past 25 years. But everything needs to be revisited based on so many new realities. The ice rink’s immediate future is a small one in the grander scheme of pushing this mountain resort community in new and successful directions.

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