Arena's Problems Go Back A Long Way
By Marcus Tiggs
Special to the Observer
Over the last couple of months the media/public has been in a frenzy over the Culver City Ice Arena story or better described as saga.
The latest turn was at Monday's City Council meeting, where it looked like there would be a six month re-opening after an 11th hour interim deal was reached with the landowner (Mike Karagozian) and the a few rink employees (the Takahashi family), only to be doused by the Fire Chef and company revealing a sincere and immediate public safety issue if the rink were to stay in operation.
Little, however, has been covered on how all this happened, other than maybe it's the "greedy" landowners fault or more recently saddling the blame on a "selfish" rink owner, John Jackson. This article will be one of two parts starting with the question, should any of us have envisioned the loss of the Culver City Ice Arena? So we took on the task of interviewing the former Culver Ice Arena Ice Skating Director (33 years), Gary Charles Visconti.
Visconti's credentials speak volumes. He is a figure skating North American Champion; two times US National Champion; Olympian and two time World Champion (bronze medalist). He has coached over 1200 students, mentored over 45 figure skating coaches and has been involved in the design process of ice rinks.
In addition, Visconti coached students in 13 World Championships, three Olympics and 14 other international competitions. He also worked with LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks and seven other NHL teams. Four hockey students ultimately played for NHL Teams.
According to Visconti, he has seen it all at Culver Ice---working with three different rink owners (including the late Dr. Jerry Buss) and five different managers (including the current owner/manager John Jackson).
Visconti reminded me he accepted my invitation to interview him because we have known each other for more than 30 years and he wanted to "provide facts, not speculation on the shuttering of Culver Ice Arena."
The first question I asked was, should we have seen this coming, of course meaning the demise/shuttering of the rink? Visconti gave a resounding, Yes. According to Visconti, during the mid-late 70s the rink was losing money to the tune of $150,000 per year. Visconti blamed this on an offsite owner, part-time manager, coupled with an economic downturn and simply "no one was watching the store".
Visconti highlighted what he characterized as "important facts": 1) Culver Ice Area is an old facility with dozens of miles of old ammonia-filled steel pipes (newer rinks use a nontoxic salt brine imbedded in concrete, rather than hazardous ammonia coolant system embedded in sand), 2) at the time Jackson purchased the rink it was subject to a long term lease with monthly lease payments almost eight times less than the current lease, 3) monthly utility bills are in the tens of thousands of dollars, 4) insurance costs have tripled over the years, and 5) Jackson was responsible for the annual real property taxes.
In 1982, the current owner, Jackson, purchased the rink from Dr. Buss. About the time of the purchase, the late Joe Setta was brought in as a full-time manager. Setta was the former owner/manager of the now defunct West Covina Ice Arena, which adorned the symbolic life size statue of a woman on top of the building near its entrance (now an iconic statute at the entrance of Culver Ice Arena).
Setta, a former Ice Capades performer, made sweeping changes to the management of the rink. According to Visconti, "Joe was not necessarily liked much", but he had the skill set to turn an unprofitable rink such as Culver Ice extremely profitable.
Visconti noted, "I really didn't like Joe much, but if I ever owned a rink he would have been my first choice to manage it".
In the early 2000's, the long term lease with the property owner concluded and the new negotiated lease was over triple that of the prior lease. If this was not enough, about the same time, Culver Ice lost its youth hockey program, affectionately known in the day as Marina Cities Hockey Club (an 18-team club based at Culver Ice Arena, composed of 350+ skaters from 5-18 years old) to the Toyota Center in El Segundo (then called, HealthSouth).
According to Visconti, this was a "big hit" to the bottom-line of the rink. The magnitude of this loss was tremendous. "Marina Cities rented the ice 3-5 days/nights per week, held tournaments, and bought food/snacks, notwithstanding supporting the in-house pro shop run by Hans Matzel".
I asked why Marina Cities left, Visconti said, "it was the result of a small number of parents really running the club and internal in-fighting, plus HealthSouth was a recently opened new facility that had no youth hockey program".
Visconti further commented "during this time it was tougher on older (single sheet) rinks to keep well established youth hockey clubs when the newer (multi sheet) facilities were being built."
According to Visconti, about two years ago it came time to re-negotiate another lease. This lease was almost 40% higher than the last lease and required Jackson's personal guarantee (the first time this was required).Visconti said he vividly remembers a discussion with Jackson, inquiring why he would want to enter into this new lease when the rink was not financially doing well.
The answer received from Jackson was, "a lot of young skaters and parents depend on the rink being open and he couldn't imagine his employees losing their jobs".
Less than a year after the new lease was inked, the rink took another hit, this time, the loss of All Year Figure Skating Club (AYFSC), a fixture at Culver Ice since 1962 until it left for Center Ice in Ontario, CA on June 1, 2012.
AYFSC brought in a consistent amount of income to the rink. AYFSC hosted over a dozen regional and sectional figure skating championships and was the home club of past Olympic and world class figure skaters.
When Visconti was asked why AYFSC left, he said "the club argued it was the condition of the ice just before it was to host the sectional championships in 2012."
Visconti, made a point in adding, the problem with the ice was a blockage somewhere in 3-4 miles of the coolant lines that was very difficult to trace. After months and tens of thousands of dollars, it was ultimately repaired---but not in time to keep AYFSC.
Visconti, added by stating the last two years of the rink saw "interest very high, but usage low". This was coupled Jackson trying to re-negotiate a new lease that was more in line with the earnings of the rink, only to find the landlord expected another increase-this time almost 50% more than the lease inked a couple of years ago.
My final two questions to Mr. Visconti was what he sees as the future for Culver Ice-if there is one? Visconti stated, "I can see it being shut down for a bit while someone coming in modernizing it and we will see it back as an operating Ice Area/Complex." The second question related more what it would take to replace the under layer, ice surface and refrigeration systems to modernize the rink. His response was short and qualified by saying it was his best guess from being involved in the design process of rinks, "somewhere in the range of $500,000."
Marcus G. Tiggs is a 20 plus-year resident of Culver City, former competitive figure skater, practicing attorney and former Culver City Planning Commissioner