Merchants saw canceled ice rink as a potential boost for business

The ice skating rink located at Bo Diddley Community Plaza in downtown Gainesville sits empty Friday, December 7, 2012.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 6:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 6:14 p.m.

Late Monday morning on the Bo Diddley Community Plaza, a white tent on an empty patch of grass was all that remained of the ice skating rink expected to be a downtown draw during the holiday season.

Three days earlier, late Friday afternoon, the city and Midwest Display Inc., the company that was going to deliver and operate the rink, canceled the attraction after multiple setbacks in assembly and delays to the opening date.

For some downtown business owners, the loss of the rink meant a lost opportunity to help offset the slowdown in business during the University of Florida’s semester break.

“That would have been a big draw, especially now with the students being gone,” said Shawn Shepherd, the owner of Vellos Historic Brickstreet Grille and the president of the Gainesville Downtown Tenants and Owners Inc. “It would have had a big impact. We were all anticipating it being there. It would have been a huge help.”

It was Midwest Display owner Mike Howard who contacted Gainesville officials with a proposal to bring a rink back to downtown after a five-year hiatus.

After a half-decade run, budget issues prompted city government to cancel the rink in 2007, when the two companies that bid on the rink contract each quoted a price in excess of $190,000.

Midwest Display, on the other hand, would have received no public funding under the agreement Howard signed with Gainesville. The city also would have received a 10 percent cut of rink admission revenues.

Gainesville spokesman Bob Woods said the city did pay $76 for a tent permit fee and waived a $29 event application fee.

Difficulties in the delivery of supplies, rebuilding a smaller rink for the grassy area at the plaza and the repair of broken chiller lines delayed opening dates scheduled for Nov. 23 and Nov. 30.

Late Friday afternoon, the rink was canceled.

“There was a critical window for attendance, and it came to a point where (the vendor) had to cut his losses,” Russell Etling, the Cultural Affairs Programs coordinator with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affair, told The Sun on Friday “He was disappointed, and so were we.”

Howard could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Formed in 1994 in Indiana and now located in Pensacola, Howard’s company has done holiday displays and skating rinks in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Virginia and Arkansas.

Howard provided city officials with references and a list of prior projects, Woods said.

Ed Patterson, the director of Indiana County Parks and Trails in western Pennsylvania, said his county department has leased holiday displays from Howard’s company since 1995 with no problems.

“We have never had any issues with him not delivering displays or not showing up with stuff,” Patterson.

Two other groups that could be reached for comment Monday did say they had issues with Midwest Display either not delivering items or canceling events.

Flo Randall, the head of a nonprofit group that puts on a holiday season display in Middletown, Ohio, said the organization worked with Midwest Display for six years with no problems.

But Randall said the group ordered $11,000 worth of LED bulbs for its displays in February and made a down payment of half of that amount. To date, Midwest Display has not delivered the bulbs purchased, Randall said.

This year, Midwest Display also planned a large drive-through holiday display, a Christmas village and skating rink at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds. Don E. Frenkel, the fairgrounds general manager, said his company paid Midwest Display nothing out of pocket, but Howard’s company was to receive a percentage of revenues.

“It looked like it was going to be a great thing, but he just couldn’t get it put together,” Frenkel said. “He canceled it because he just couldn’t get it put together.”

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