When the news first broke last week that the Augusta Ice Sports Center was going to be purchased by new owners not interested in keeping the rink, Micah Hand knew that he and other rink supporters were going to have a tough time trying to save the last remaining ice surface in Augusta.
In 2013, when the James Brown Arena decided that repairing its ice surface was too expensive, the Augusta RiverHawks, the minor league hockey team that replaced the Augusta Lynx, had to finish out the season at the Ice Sports Center. Without ice at the arena, the team sat out the 2014 season and, in June, they announced they were moving to Macon.
According to Hand, losing the ice at the Augusta Ice Sports Center has a more direct impact on the community, however. Not only does the rink host birthday parties and have skating times for the general public, it’s also home to a figure skating program and a hockey program.
Immediately after hearing the news, Hand and his wife, Jenni, created a Facebook page and a GoFundMe account, both called Save the Augusta Ice Sports Center.
The first news stories framed it as a David versus Goliath struggle: in a desperate effort to save the ice rink for their kids, a group of parents hoped to help former owner and current manager Duncan Crerar come up with $2 million to keep the new ownership from swooping in, melting the ice and ruining the little kids’ dreams.
It made for a good story, but not only was the message inaccurate, it ended up being harmful.
“I ran into a friend of mine that liked the Facebook page, but when the news said we had to earn $2 million in such a short period of time, he was like, what’s the point,” Hand says. “And I was like, that’s the whole problem, because that was never the point.”
The point, he says, is not to save the existing business, but to save ice in Augusta.
“It’s not about saving the building, it’s about saving our little family,” he says. “Our goal is to save what we can. If we can put forth an effort that shows our commitment and the community rallies around the idea of having an ice surface in Augusta, we’re going to do whatever we can to find someone who’s willing to help us keep a surface here, whether it’s at that building or in Grovetown or downtown or across town.”
If Crerar can’t come up with the $2 million, the new owners are set to close on the building in late August. Hand is currently trying to contact the new owners in an effort to determine the status of the equipment inside the building, mainly the compressor, the Zamboni and the rental skates. If the group can obtain those things, whether by purchasing them or through donation, he hopes to combine them with whatever money he can raise and convince someone on the idea of opening up another rink.
“If we get all the equipment out and put it in storage, when we do go to another person with a business plan, we can say, look — we’ve got $100,000 worth of equipment you don’t have to go out and buy and we’ve raised x-amount of dollars on top of it to help get the ball rolling.”
Even with that kind of head start it would still be an expensive proposition, but he’s convinced they can make a case for it.
Though Hand himself doesn’t skate, his wife is one of several adult skaters based at the rink. She started skating as an adult and has plans to compete at the adult nationals in Salt Lake City next April, even if she has to make the drive to the rink in Irmo, S.C., to practice.
“I’ll still go no matter what,” she says. “But I can’t go without a really good axel (jump), and it’s going to be difficult to keep it consistent with only an hour a week.”
Adult skater Jeanne Clavel feels the same way. She started skating in 2004 when her daughter, Solene, was taking skating lessons.
“One of the coaches was looking at all the adults watching and told us that instead of freezing, we could take a class as well,” she says.
She did, and three or four years later, she was competing. She has continued competing and has gradually moved up through the ranks.
“Of course, now that the rink is pending to close, it’s all that much more disappointing because I know right now I’m not going to be able to master some of the steps I haven’t already mastered if I now need to travel an hour or an hour and a half to another rink,” she says. “That is most discouraging.”
The initial news report wasn’t entirely wrong — there are plenty of young skaters along with plenty of very dedicated parents — but Hand and others insist that saving the ice is about more than the easy headline of giving kids a place to go. According to coach Andrew Austin, who started skating at age 11 in England, it’s also about exposing the community to a variety of experiences it wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.
“If you want to expose yourself or your family to diversity, skating is going to give it to you in a way that I don’t think other traditional sports are going to do,” he says. “Just this morning, you’ve got a girl from Finland being coached by a guy from England in Augusta, Georgia. And then you’ve got my wife, Renee, who’s originally from Hawaii who had always wanted to skate and found that in Georgia. To me, that’s just an incredible opportunity.”
After coaching in Atlanta, the Austins moved to Augusta to coach at the rink, which was then called the Ice Forum.
“What I find is gained here on the ice goes beyond the ice,” Renee Austin says. “The skaters get their bumps and bruises on the ice and it’s cold and it’s early, but they come back day after day and week after week. Once it gets under your skin, it’s there for a lifetime.”
According to Sue Coon, president of the Figure Skating Club of Augusta, there were 35 club members last year and 14 have signed up this year. Should the rink close, the United States Figure Skating Association would allow the club to remain in an inactive status for one year, which would allow skaters planning to compete the chance to do so representing the club.
As of Tuesday, July 15, the Save the Augusta Ice Sports Center Facebook page had 628 likes and the GoFundMe account has received $1,280. In addition to those contributions, Hand says Surreal at Surry has pledged to donate Friday’s profits from the door.
In the next few days, Hand hopes to bring all members of the skating community together, including the members of the hockey program, to coordinate the message and create a business plan he hopes will help convince community leaders and potential investors that ice has a future in Augusta. He knows doing that will require more than pulling on heartstrings.
“Not a lot of cities in the south get rinks,” he says. “Could this one be managed better — maybe. Could it be advertised better — yes. Could it be marketed more properly — of course. But those are the doors of potential that stand to be opened, and we want to make sure someone gets a chance to open them.”