During the discussions over the proposed $10.5 million combination recreation/ice rink, much was said about the condition of the South Windsor Arena and how its owner, Richard Grigorian, does business.
Claims have been made that the arena is old, dilapidated and unsafe - and that Grigorian is unwilling to work with the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association with regard to ice time and how much he charges.
Theses are claims that Grigorian refuted - and he has support. Letters from past presidents of the SWYHA, as well as one current board member of the association, reveal that not everyone believes the South Windsor Arena to be outmoded.
The conversations also bore out that Grigorian, according to two past presidents of the SWYHA, is a tough, but ultimately fair local businessman who has done a lot for youth hockey in South Windsor and area towns.
Grigorian said that the numbers that were submitted to the Town Council concerning the proposed project are, at best, aggressive to the point of not being workable.
Finally, there are questions as to whether the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association’s board of directors has even fully endorsed the project.
If It Wears Like Iron...
Admittedly, Grigorian says that the the South Windsor Arena, which in the past has served as a practice facility for the Soviet national team as well as the Montreal Canadians and Boston Bruins when the Whalers were in Hartford, is not the Taj Mahal.
It was built in 1971; it’s got wooden bleachers; the locker rooms are a bit cramped, but serviceable.
But even so, Grigorian said that it is not the civic shame that some have made it out to be.
“It’s a hockey arena, no question about it,” Grigorian said. “Every rink was built that way. If it wears like iron, it looks like iron."
Grigorian also said that the ice, which is really the product that people buy, is “the best in the marketplace. We’ve got great ice. We’re not pretty, but everything else is perfect.”
Grigorian felt compelled to discuss the arena after remarks, notably by the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association President Bob Feher, came out that the structure was so flawed that there was a need in town to have a large project built at the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk near the Old Navy.
The project includes the following:
- a 35,000 square-foot community center for youths that will have classrooms and an aquatic center comprising an eight-lane pool, therapy pool and diving pools.
- Two - one indoor, one outdoor - ice skating rinks; the indoor rink alone will be 38,000 square feet and will be under the same roof as the Community Center, while the outdoor rink would be about 22,000 square feet.
- An extensive multi-use trail and bike path system that would connect the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk with the Town Center. The new paths would provide safe connections for pedestrians and cyclists.
It is unclear how much the project would cost the town - construction would be financed through a 63-20 corporation, which would cover the cost of construction through bonds. The corporation would then lease the recreation center/ice rinks to the town.
Feher said that the project would not cost the town anything, as the fees generated by the rinks and swimming pool would cover the cost of the bonds. But attorney Kent Mawhinney, representing the corporation that would construct the project, presented the project before the Town Council, said that the $600,000 figure would be in addition to the fees generated by the new facilities.
For those who would like to move the project forward quickly, much of the allure of that type of deal, know as a lease purchase agreement, is that there would be no need for a referendum - or approval from voters; the $600,000 payment from the town to the 63-20 corporation would be merely a line item in South Windsor’s annual budget.
Alleged Problems at the Arena
In discussing the project with Patch, Feher said that the South Windsor Arena had issues with air quality and that Grigorian was not willing to work with the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association when it came to ice time.
“I got serious about [supporting the project] when I approached [the Grigorians] to buy $10,000 of ice time and turn in time we had for Halloween and Thanksgiving,” Feher said in October. “Instead of taking the $7,000 of additional business, they didn’t want to work with us.”
Feher said that the boards and glass were dilapidated, and the rink air quality was substandard.
“Five kids had asthma attacks at one practice,” Feher told South Windsor Patch.
An Apology for 'Any Libelous' Statements
The statements that Feher made to Patch took Grigorian by surprise, because Feher had already approached Grigorian in the spring about the Arena’s air quality and cleanliness; Grigorian believed those issues had been resolved.
Grigorian said that he produced documentation about the equipment that he uses to clean the ice as well as how he maintains the day-to-day upkeep of the arena.
As evidence, Grigorian supplied Patch with an email from Feher dated April 22, in which Feher apologizes and retracts what he calls “any offensive or libelous statements.”
In the e-mail, Feher acknowledges that there are “[safeguards] regarding air quality…and the [South Windsor Arena] does have a regular cleaning crew. Over the past couple of years we have seen the [South Windsor Arena] improve the parking area, and the lobby and admire your commitment to improve the facility.”
Feher went on to write that the SWYHA’s goals “align perfectly with [Grigorian’s] business.”
Past Presidents Speak
It can be argued that Grigorian’s statements concerning his arena and his opposition to the newly proposed rink/recreation center are self-serving.
After all, he readily admits that the new rinks would cut into his business by possibly drawing away at least some, if not all, of the SWYHA’s membership, which accounts for over $300,000 of the South Windsor Arena’s revenue.
But several past presidents of the SWYHA have defended Grigorian and the South Windsor Arena.
Former SWYHA President John Sommers, a member of the organization for nearly 21 years who until recently hosted the association’s meetings at his business Allied Printing, recently resigned from the association, stating “the road to where this is all going is not good for the SWYHA.”
In a telephone interview, Sommers said that every new sitting president tries to do something about getting a new arena built or change the approach in dealing with Grigorian.
“It’s really this love/hate relationship with the arena,” Sommers said. “I don’t know why.”
Sommers didn’t sugarcoat his relationship with Grigorian, however.
“I’m not telling you it’s always been easy negotiating with the Grigorians,” Sommers said (Richard Grigorian runs the arena with his sons). “They obviously want what is most favorable for them. But when I was president, when we had an issue, he would sit down with me and the vice president and we would compromise and agree on a rate that was fair.”
The last couple of years, Sommers noted, the Grigorians and the arena have run the Learn to Skate Program, which is the gateway for children to learn how to play hockey. Normally the SWYHA signs up the kids and does the fittings for gloves, skates and helmets.
“Now everybody has gotten lazy and the Grigorians now do it,” Sommers said. “They want to see youth hockey succeed in South Windsor.”
Sommers said that he didn’t understand why the town would subsidize building another hockey rink, or two, in town.
“The way I look at it, the Grigorians have a business, they pay taxes to the town, they employ people,” Sommers said. “Why would they want to compete against the arena?..."
“There is nothing wrong with the arena. It’s old. It’s seen some hard days. But there is nothing wrong with it.”
Another former president, Russell Bolduc, wrote in a letter dated Oct. 22 that he has never had any issue with the air quality or the safety of the arena.
Bolduc said he played hockey for 22 years, coached the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association for eight years and was president of the SWYHA for three years.
“Dick Gregorian [sic] and his family always treated me with professionalism and genuine concern to resolve any issue we may have had. Dick was always there when we needed help with the [Learn to Skate] program and fund raising [sic] activities and was always willing to negotiate ice times and fees,” Bolduc wrote. “The allegations that the rink is all of a sudden not safe or fit for our children is absurd and without merit. I and my family will continue to enjoy South Windsor Arena.”
Even Kent Mawhinney, the Bloomfield lawyer who presented the project before the Town Council in mid-October, wrote positively of the South Windsor Arena as recently as 2011, when Mawhinney served as the president of the SWYHA.
In an e-mail to the SWYHA parents in 2011, Mawhinney wrote of the two-year contract the association had with the arena in positive terms.
“We have also enjoyed the benefits of a rink that has been and remains supportive of our Association,” Mawhinney wrote, while listing eight things that the arena does to support youth hockey in South Windsor, including donating ice time for the preseason and the learn to skate program, discounted tournament ice, discounted tryout ice and support of fundraisers.
The irony of ironies is that Grigorian helped start the SWYHA nearly 40 years ago to develop a feeder program for the arena.
He says that he holds no ill will toward the association, and that this boils down to a dispute between he and Feher, the SWYHA’s current president.
To quell any fears of retaliation that some have floated - that if the new project does not move forward, the Grigorians will take it out on the SWYHA in the form of higher fees - South Windsor Arena President Leonard Grigorian, Richard’s son, wrote a letter to the Town Council dated Oct. 17 in which he states that “all the ice time presently being used by the South Windsor Youth Hockey Association will continue to be honored and made available next season intact and at the same rate being assessed at this time.”
There is also a question as to why the SWYHA is even involved in the discussion about the new arena, considering that it has not been brought before the entire SWYHA board of directors.
Egidia Power, an SWYHA board member, said in a telephone interview that nothing, not even an informal discussion, had been brought before the board about the project.
"It wasn't voted on or talked about," Power said without commenting on the merits of the project. "Most board members didn't know about it until the press release was sent out...it's not our project."
Still, Power said that her experience with the South Windsor Arena has been "great."
Do the Numbers Add Up?
Having been in business for 40 years, Grigorian says that he is an expert in how hockey arenas operate.
Against that backdrop, he says that the numbers that were provided to the Town Council do not match what would happen should the project move forward.
More specifically, Grigorian said that it would cost the town conservatively between $500,000 and $800,000 more per year than the numbers that were presented to the Town Council.
By way of example, Grigorian said that the projections in terms of how much revenue the new facilities will make from the SWYHA was off by about $100,000 alone, based on the amount of time the association requires and how much the new facility will charge.
For example, the 2011-12 contract that the SWYHA has with the South Windsor arena is for $275,282, based on 752 hours of ice time at $371 per hour. In 2012-13, the arena is scheduled to make about $287,000 from the SWYHA off of ice time at $382 an hour.
The projections, however, state that the South Windsor Arena will generate about $80,000 more from the agreement - $367,000 - and that the new facility, at $401/hour of ice time, will make 5 percent more on top of that - or $385,858.
The assumption is based on the SWYHA using 962 hours of ice time at the new facility, not 752 hours used at South Windsor Arena.
“Where are you going to find all of this ice?” Grigorian asked.
The projected revenue that Mawhinney provided to the Town Council also assumes that the SWYHA will continue for the next 30 years, even though he noted that eight other youth hockey associations either dissolved or merged.
Mawhinney even noted the tenuous status of area youth hockey associations in the 2011 message to parents.
“When I played for SWYHA over 38 years ago, there were youth hockey teams in Vernon, Manchester, Glastonbury, Wethersfield, Windsor, Suffield, Somers and Farmington,” Mawhinney wrote. “These Associations have all either disappeared or merged. Thanks to the time and energy of past SWYHA coaches, volunteers, directors and officers our Association remains independent and strong.”
With a current shortage of volunteers for the Learn to Skate Program in the SWYHA - the arena has run the program the last several years - Grigorian wondered what the status of the association will be in five or 10 years without the support of the South Windsor Arena.
The revenue projections, according to Grigorian, also assume that the SWYHA will automatically move to the new rinks. The projected revenue doesn’t take into account what would happen if Grigorian got into a bidding war with the new rinks or if the SWYHA split its ranks with only some members going to the new arena. As stated earlier, the SWYHA board has not voted on this measure yet.
The projections also assume $85,000 from the men’s league, which Grigorian said wasn’t feasible even with the new outdoor rink.
“Why go there and practice in 32 degree weather when they can come here?” Grigorian asked.
The projected numbers also includes smaller things, like $25,000 for the high school to play at the new facility. Its current agreement with the South Windsor Arena calls for it to pay $18,000. The high school gate is listed as $20,000, when South Windsor Arena last year brought in $13,000. The new facility also assumes that the Eastern Connecticut State University club hockey team will migrate with its $25,000.
“Eastern is not going anywhere,” Grigorian said.
The projections also tuned the Learn to Skate Program into a revenue generator, which, Grigorian said, wasn’t the case. The money paid by parents to the Grigorians essential covers the cost of the equipment - gloves, skates and helmets - provided to the kids.
Even birthday parties, listed at $27,000 annually, was high, Grigorian said.
There were also shortfalls, according to Grigorian in public skating, stick time and the pro-shop.
What’s more, the projections, Grigorian said, assume that South Windsor Arena does not exist.
But with the Arena’s shop serving as one of the largest distributors of hockey equipment in the eastern United States, Grigorian said that his business “isn’t going anywhere.”
Grigorian said that he assumed that any shortfall in the numbers would have to be made up by the town and, therefore, the taxpayers.
Any additional town funds for recreation may not be palatable to residents, particularly in light of recent.
Indeed, voters recently rejected a referendum question that would have bonded $1 million for the construction of a playground at Veterans Memorial Pool as well as expansions to the bike path network.
Mayor Tom Delnicki said that he believed that the referendum question failed, at least in part, because of the rink/recreation center proposal.