What do you do when your ice is under-utilized and the number of participants in your youth skating programs are continually dropping? The Town of Amherst, Nova Scotia initiated a “No-Fee Ice Time for Youth” pilot last season to see if free ice would boost enrolment — and it did. It also provided some other surprising benefits which hadn’t been imagined when the program was designed.
In fact, the pilot was so successful, the Town will be extending it for the 2017-18 season.
But before Ice Allocation Policy #72300-09 became a reality, it needed to be sold to the Town Council. After all, forfeiting the youth groups’ user fees is quite the radical idea since practically every municipality charges for ice. Free ice would mean the town of 10,000 would get about $60,000 less in revenues by not charging its youth groups for ice time. And for such a small town, that sixty grand is not an insignificant number…
Bill Schurman, the Director of the Town Amherst’s Parks & Recreation Department, was the project’s champion. He’s quick to tell you that he’s at the twilight his career, which has always been in and around ice arenas. And the one thing that he’d always wondered was why it was that municipal tennis courts, gymnasiums, ball diamonds, walking trails — even libraries — had no user fees attached to them, but ice arenas always did?
Amherst would be his opportunity to change all that.
Why Do Municipal Arenas Charge for Ice Time?
“And look at hanging baskets!” exclaims Schurman, who was once the GM of the Junior A Moncton Wildcats. “If you actually calculated the amount of resources it takes to buy them, plant them, water them the entire season, take them down and put them away, you would be shocked at the investment (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that, I’m just talking about the investment). We have ball diamonds, tennis courts and walking trails and build them to make our community better — and we offer them for free. When looking at our declining ice rentals, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Why do we charge for ice?'”
To Schurman’s way of thinking, it already cost the municipality somewhere around $300,000 to run the Amherst Stadium with an abundance of ice time availability. It wouldn’t cost that much more, he figured, if the facility was busier. But if it was busier, if parents were to pay less for their kids’ skating programs, the Town would be contributing to healthier, more active kids.
So, armed with reports — including the Town’s own recreation master plan and activity strategies and Nova Scotia’s goal to be tobacco-free, Schurman concluded that by eliminating the user fees, the Town might eliminate the biggest barrier to Amherst’s youth participating in wintertime skating programs.
And, he figured, with more kids signed up for ice sport activities, that might bring a boost for the local economy too.
Free Ice, Free Admission
Under the pilot, the ice time was free as long as the youth clubs passed those savings on to the families. That meant a savings of between $75 and $350 per skater — depending on which program they would be registering. The only other stipulation was that no entry fees could be charged for anything which meant free admission for tournaments and games. That had an immediate impact: the Amherst Regional High School students, no longer needing to pay the $8 entrance fee, started to pack the stands to cheer for their team, the Amherst Vikings.
The Town Council agreed to launch the pilot in time for the 2016-17 season and it made a positive impact on registrations, as expected. The Amherst Skating Club saw a 45% increase in the number of figure skaters. The Cumberland County Minor Hockey Association saw their registrations climb too — including an incredible 85% increase in 3-on-3 hockey registrations over the previous year.
|Amherst Skating Club||Skating Club||99||144||45.45%|
The launch of the pilot was a very public event, held at a news conference at the Amherst Stadium. The free ice pilot received coverage in the local press and to further promote it in social media, they used their Town’s very own hashtag — #SeeWhyWeLoveIt — which helped get the word spread to pretty well all the residents in Amherst.
More parents signed up their children for ice sports. And when the programs began, something else began happening.
The Stadium’s indoor walking track started being used — more than ever before.
Turns out, the “No-Fee Ice Time Pilot for Youth” wasn’t just getting the youth of Amherst active once again with free ice. It was getting their parents active too.
Indoor Walking Track
“There’s nothing sadder than to drive by an arena at six thirty in the morning and see no cars in the parking lot,” Schurman says. “Now, you drive past the Amherst Stadium and the lot won’t be empty. Because instead of just dropping off Little Tom or Little Susie, mom or dad — or both of them — are using the indoor walking track while their son or daughter is skating. And because our public skate sessions are now free as well, those people at the public skates see others using the walking track, and that’s inspiring them to use it too. The more people that use it seems to inspire even more people to use it. It’s making our community more active!”
The Stadium as Health Centre
“In fact, the walking track is now busier than the ice, but to see all the people using that building is a great feeling,” Schurman confides. “Our ice sports were on the decline. We had a bunch of ice with nobody to rent it. Now the whole building is busy.”
Schurman takes a breath.
“To me, a stadium is a really a health centre. If we can invest — or find partners to help us invest — in removing the barriers of cost to have our citizens be active more, the benefits will be paid back in spades.”
A Success Story — AND Community Pride
All in all, the pilot was a great success story: more youth participating in sports, more parents being active and more school spirit.
But it was a story about a conversation that took place during a hockey tournament in Amherst that really proved that his community’s removal of ice fees was not just great for Amherst’s youth and their parents, but for the entire community.
Schurman was at a meeting of municipalities, speaking about the pilot, the vision and the costs. After his presentation, there were several questions from the floor, and then one of the attendees rose her hand, asking if she could tell a story.
“She said her son plays hockey and they’d been at a tournament this past winter in Amherst,” Schurman says. “Her husband was seated off to the side, near to where an older gentleman, a resident of Amherst, was sitting. The two men eventually got to talking and somehow the “free admission” to the tournament was one of the things they talked about. Her husband said was quite impressed — he’d never been to a tournament where they hadn’t charged admission before. That made the older man smile and he replied, saying how proud he was that his town was providing free ice for the youth.”
“That was such a great moment, hearing that story. Because that’s something you can’t measure — pride in the community!”
What you can measure, however, is how the residents of Amherst, Nova Scotia, view the pilot and that’s something that ARCH – Applied Research Collaborations for Health from the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University was contracted to evaluate. Although the Summary Report isn’t final yet, I got a sneak peak at the draft.
There are some challenges, like streamlining ice time requests, dealing with cancellations as well as the equitable distribution of ice time. And, because of more demand for ice time, the Town’s lost revenues totalled $20K more than expected. But for Amherst’s free ice pilot, most of the takeaways are successes:
- Ice time – Bookings were up 225 hours in the 2016-17 season compared to the season before.
- More active kids – More of Amherst’s youth participated in ice sports this past winter than they did the winter before
- Boost to the local economy – Hockey tournaments generated nearly $100,000 in sales for lodging and meals for local businesses
The concept of municipalities charging ice time to their user groups is such a given, very few question why it’s not being provided as a free service to their community. Bill Schurman did, and his community is benefitting from their decision to provide youth with free ice. If you’d like to consider implementing a similar programme in your community, let me know. Or, you just might want to follow Bill Schurman on Twitter . After all, you never know what kind of great ideas that Amherst will come up with next…