Ogden's Ice Sheet continues, long after the 2002 Winter Olympics

Friday , January 06, 2017 - 5:00 AM6 comments

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Say what you will about the social and economic pitfalls of hosting an Olympics. But at the very least, Weber County officials believe residents got a darn fine ice skating facility out of the deal.

The Ice Sheet, near Weber State University’s Dee Events Center at 4390 Harrison Blvd., was completed in 1994, in anticipation of earning what would eventually be the successful bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The rink was a joint venture between Weber County, the university and the State of Utah.

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell was working for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee at the time of the 2002 games. He says The Ice Sheet was an integral part of Utah’s successful bid for the games.

“You have to have a certain percentage of the venues constructed before you’re awarded the bid,” Caldwell said. “It was one of those original venues in the initial bid package.”

Todd Ferrario, division director over The Ice Sheet, called the facility the “marquee piece” of the 2002 bid.

“Basically, it was, ‘Here’s what we can do if we’re awarded the bid,’ ” Ferrario said.

The Ice Sheet was originally designed to be the women’s hockey venue for the 2002 Olympics, but when women’s hockey became a hot ticket at the ’98 Nagano Olympics, Caldwell says Salt Lake organizers suddenly realized the Ogden venue didn’t have enough seating. So the committee commissioned the Peaks Ice Arena, in Provo, for women’s hockey, and Ogden ended up with the men’s and women’s curling competitions.

After the Olympics, The Ice Sheet became an integral part of the community, according to city and county officials.

“It’s been heavily used,” Caldwell said. “The Ice Sheet is a great part of our Olympic legacy.”

Caldwell has heard figures bandied about that Utah’s “Olympic legacy venues” — like The Ice Sheet — are used eight times more now than when they were first built. He says that’s a far cry from what happened to Japan’s venues from the 1998 Olympics.

“Nagano’s speed-skating venue? Within a year, it was a flea market — they couldn’t afford to operate the rink,” Caldwell said. “That’s not the case here.”

Rather, the mayor points to how busy The Ice Sheet has been since 2002. At the time of the Olympics, there were just three such venues along the Wasatch Front. In The Ice Sheet’s first decade, Caldwell says, the venue was open virtually around the clock — from 4:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. or later.

“Before (Utah State University) had an ice rink in Logan, their hockey team used to come down to Ogden and take the ice at 12:30 in the morning,” Caldwell said. “They’d skate for an hour or an hour and a half, and then drive back to Logan. And they’d do that at least three times a week.”

Today, there are almost a dozen sheets of ice in the state, so the demand isn’t as high, according to Ferrario. Still, the Ogden facility remains busy.

“We’re open from 6 a.m. to — very frequently — midnight, seven days a week,” he said.

In addition to the traditional open-skating sessions at The Ice Sheet, there are classes, practices and competitions for curling, hockey, figure skating and more. Both Weber State and the Ogden Mustangs make their hockey homes at the sheet. Throw in private rentals and other events, and Ferrario says the place gets plenty of use in the community.

Particularly packed, Ferrario says, are the evening hours, from about 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. each day.

“When I say we are full, … I couldn’t sell you an hour of ice time in the next two years in that window,” he said. “Our peak times are completely full, and our nonpeak times are at 70 percent capacity.”

Bang for the buck

An estimated 465,000 people used The Ice Sheet in 2016.

Ferrario says the economics of ice rinks and swimming pools are fairly comparable. In other words, it’s not cheap to run a sheet of ice — “high infrastructure to build, and the utilities are expensive.”

In addition to Ferrario, The Ice Sheet employs four full-time employees, and between 20 and 40 part-time employees, depending on the time of year.

The annual budget for The Ice Sheet hovers right around a million dollars. In 2014, the budget was $906,903. In 2015, it was $951,894, and last year’s estimated budget was $1,024,895. The approved budget for 2017 allocates $1,080,416 to the facility.

Jennifer Graham, assistant director for Culture, Parks and Recreation for the county, says Weber County subsidizes The Ice Sheet to the tune of about $400,000 a year. The remaining roughly $650,000 in revenue is generated through skate admission, facility rentals and other fees.

Graham believes it’s money well-spent.

“I think the county subsidy is reasonable,” she said.

Ferrario agrees.

“I look at it as any recreational opportunity,” he said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue. We think of The Ice Sheet the same as we look at our parks. We try to provide a palette of opportunities, which gives residents a quality of life.”

And then there are the intangibles that never show up on a budget, according to Ferrario. Chief among them are the tourism dollars that come to town when, say, the Ogden Mustangs hockey club hosts the Western States Hockey League championships.

“This event is four days, with our local team and five out-of-state teams,” Ferrario said. “That’s a big impact for four days out of the year.”

Mayor Caldwell is pleased with the economic impact of The Ice Sheet on his city.

“If you look at what happens when these hockey clubs come, it counts for thousands of room nights in downtown,” he said. “It’s hard to calculate — they’re hard numbers to track the gas bought, or where people went to dinner and how much they spent — but when you look at the overall tourism spending in Ogden, it’s increased dramatically. And The Ice Sheet is a part of that.”

Partnership with WSU

In 2013, the county partnered with Weber State University to complete an expansion of The Ice Sheet. That year, a second rink was added, as well as a second level that is used as an indoor training facility by WSU athletic teams. That second floor includes a 70-yard, slightly-narrower-than-regulation football field with one end zone, a small training room, administrative offices and a 3,000-square-foot weight room.

“It was a great partnership; it ended up a win-win,” said Jerry Bovee, director of intercollegiate athletics at Weber State. “We got a little space, and they got a little space.”

Bovie says it’s the only indoor practice facility in the Big Sky Conference dedicated exclusively to athletes, and it gives the university an edge in everything from recruiting to preparation for game day.

“So our softball team gets better, our golf team gets better, our soccer team gets better,” Bovee said.

Ferrario says the busiest times for The Ice Sheet are September to mid-April. During the summer months, when demand for ice time is not as great, the second rink is closed down.

Another Olympics?

The fact Weber County has kept The Ice Sheet in good working condition may come in handy one of these years. Ferrario says that as an interesting side note, “There’s been more than just a periphery discussion about bidding for the Olympics again.” He believes it would be a phenomenal opportunity.

A big advantage Utah has, according to Ferrario, is that all of the original venues are still being used for the purpose they were built.

“Bringing the Olympics back, cost-wise, would be cheaper than starting from scratch,” he said. “Economically, we are in a good position to host these.”

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell agrees, pointing to the enormous tab Russia ran up for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Look at the $55 billion Sochi spent,” he said. “We could easily do it for a fraction of that cost.”

Caldwell says he’d “absolutely support looking into” another Winter Olympics bid. He believes the 2002 games were great for both the state and local communities, and he thinks Utah residents would again step up to the opportunity.

“Utah had a three-year plan to get 22,000 volunteers for the 2002 Olympics,” Caldwell said. “And after a year and a half, they had 90,000 applications on file.”

Whether or not the Olympics ever return to Utah, Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey believes The Ice Sheet adds something “magical” to the community. Harvey says he’s never shot a basketball at the Utah Jazz’s arena, or thrown a pass in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. But he says he has tried sports at venues where the best athletes in the world have competed — right in his own backyard.

“I always wanted to throw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium, but I’ll probably never be able to do that,” Harvey said. “But I’ve been able to ski at an Olympic venue, and I’ve been able to curl at an Olympic venue. And while I can’t do it like an Olympian, it’s nice to say I’ve been there and done it.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.