Amy Choate-Nielsen: Ice is fine, but the funding is slippery

Kearns oval running big deficit; rewriting contract is difficult

Published: Saturday, July 12 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

Technicians Nathaniel Coffey, front, and Zach Anderson flood the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval.
Many world records have been set at the facility, which is running an annual deficit of $1.5 million.

Ashley Lowery, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

KEARNS — If you stepped inside the Olympic speedskating oval in Kearns this week you would see fresh puddles of purified water freezing into the world's fastest ice.

But while oval workers spend this month getting ready for another slick season of skating at an official Olympic training facility, the Utah Athletic Foundation and Kearns Oquirrh Recreation and Parks District are still trying to get a footing on who should operate the venue now that the oval's contract has expired.

The "world's fastest" attribution doesn't apply to the contract negotiations — they have been going on for more than two years — but members of both committees hope a resolution will be reached soon.

"We're still hammering out the final terms," said Utah Athletic Foundation president Colin Hilton. "There are no worries and both parties see no issues that would interrupt ongoing programs. There won't be any dramatic changes to what we're doing now."

According to district board chairwoman Laurie Stringham, ownership and management of the facility should have been re-allocated to the district earlier this year with the stipulation that the foundation would continue to pay for the oval's operating costs. But efforts to rewrite a contract that satisfies both entities have been laborious.

At issue is how to divide the ongoing cost of operating and maintaining the massive structure as well as the price tag for replacing expensive equipment and dealing with other facility needs in the coming years.

The facility has been operating at an annual deficit of $1.5 million, a cost that Hilton has said he wants to reduce annually by $500,000, with help from the service district. The foundation is funded through an endowment from profits left by the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Stringham says the district has tried to negotiate with the foundation over the years, but negotiations have only "gotten serious" within the last year.

The district granted two three-month contract extensions to the foundation — the second of which ended June 30 — but now the district has assumed ownership of the oval with a short-term lease agreement with the foundation. It's anticipated that a new, 20-year agreement will be signed in the fall.

"If things don't look like they're going to go well, we might end up in court," Stringham said. "I'm very optimistic that that won't happen, but I'm not opposed to going to court ... Our intent is to get an agreement done that is good for the community and good for the state."

U.S. Speedskating relocated its national organization to the oval in 2006, and fresh ice is laid every year to keep the facility's reputation for having the world's fastest ice, which means that more world records have been set at the facility than anywhere else.

The process takes two weeks and involves cleaning the 400-meter concrete track, cooling the slab with 35 miles of refrigeration pipes, flooding the track with filtered reverse-osmosis water and hand-painting the lane lines and logos.

The facility closes its speed track from April to June every year to save roughly $55,000 a month in refrigeration and energy costs. Every July, the process is started again, in time for speedskating practice and summer outreach programs, which are detailed on the oval's Web site, www.olyparks.com.

Oval operations manager Todd Porter says the ice is made faster by the facility's altitude — which thins the oxygen in the water filtration system and contributes to the lack of humidity in the building.

"We really take pride in the ice," Porter said. "We take pride knowing that the (U.S. Speedskating) team likes to be here. ... We feel that it's part of our accomplishment, too, so we get pumped when it's just a regular weekend and they still get their personal best."


Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche


E-mail: achoate@desnews.com

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