With a glut of retail space on the market, you might drive by an empty retail space every single day. As you do, you just can’t help but wonder…


Could I turn that empty building into an indoor ice arena?

Randy Uens is the CEO of Rhino Sports & Playland, a family entertainment centre in Belleville, ON. When the city’s only Zellers Department Store closed down in 2013, it left a hole that was difficult to fill. According to a 2015 article in the Belleville Intelligencer, “big box” stores didn’t seem to be all that interested in setting up in this small (pop. 50,000) city to fill the empty space.

But Rhino Sports was. And did!

Uens is a businessman. He grew up playing hockey in Belleville and spent a couple of years playing in the British Hockey League as a professional player before coming back home. At first, he didn’t consider the space that Zellers left behind; he had his eye on another venue: the Belleville Memorial Arena. And what Belleville hockey player wouldn’t? Since 1929 — over eight decades — the Memorial Arena had been the home of hockey in Belleville, a prized, historic piece of the city’s culture. For years it was once home to the Belleville McFarlands, the victors over the Soviet Union in the 1959 Ice Hockey World Championships, but since 2010, it has been sitting unused. In 2015, the City had decided to put this heritage property out to tender, but as those plans were delayed, Uens started looking elsewhere.

By this time, the Zellers space was three years empty. The owners of the mall were eager to find a replacement anchor tennant. And, lucky for Rhino Sports, they were ready to make a deal.

“It seemed like THE perfect space for an entertainment center,” he says. It was large enough for all the play areas they wanted to have, including a rink for 3-on-3 hockey, bringing affordable youth hockey development to the region.

“And the space is centrally located with a lot of parking — accessibility is always key,” Uens says.

Uens decided to lease the space and the owners began to modify the building to make it possible to put an indoor ice rink in place.

“There was a lot of work that needed to be done — a lot more than just moving load-bearing pillars and the reinforcement of the roof,” he says.

Seven months later, Rhino Sports & Playland opened its doors.

The video above shows the time lapse of the build of Rhino Sports’ ice rink in the space that used to be a department store.

Before Converting that Empty Retail Space to an Ice Rink…

Uens says if you’re going to convert retail space into an indoor ice arena, there are a few things you have to keep in mind:

  • Ceiling height – “We have 27 feet, which is good enough for what we’re using it for. But many retail spaces aren’t that high.”
  • Roof – “Is it well insulated? What’s the R-Factor? And will it need to be reinforced to support a cooling tower?”
  • Flat surface – If the floor has issues, it’s not a good match. “We built a 16″ curb around the rink that supports the boards.”
  • Have a fallback plan – “We knew if this model wasn’t successful, we could turn it into cold storage facility. And there’s a lot of demand for cold storage.”
  • Consider if you need a landlord or if you should build it yourself – “It was a fast turnaround. But in retrospect, if we had found suitable space and built it ourselves, we could have attracted other tenants to the building to cover the costs. That’s what we’d do if we would do it again.”

For Uens and Rhino Sports, serendipity was on their side. They found retail space large enough for their plans. They found a landlord willing to customize the space at an affordable cost. And, when looking at refrigeration options for the ice rink, they found a “lightly used” ice plant from a two-year-old rink in Minnesota that had gone bankrupt. They hired ice rink construction specialists Rink-Tec to do the install. The facility, which includes a 1,100 square foot trampoline room, a rock climbing wall, golf simulators, a jungle gym, and more, opened on March 1, 2017.

Repurposing Other Spaces as an Ice Rink

Are you driving by an empty retail space and dreaming? Now might be a the best time ever to take the plunge and turn that empty space where Sports Authority, Linens & Things — or a myriad of other grocers and retailers used to sell their wares, into an indoor ice arena. And it doesn’t just need to be a retail store. There are some very good examples of spaces that started out as something else and have been repurposed as ice rinks. At NYC’s first municipal airport, the Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, Aviator Sports has refurbished four aircraft hangars, turning them into sports centers — two of which contain NHL-sized arenas. Further north, in Dedham, MA, Boch Ice has crafted a full- and half-sized rink from a building that was formerly the world headquarters for Mystic Scenic Studios who had used the space for custom fabrication of everything from studio sets and corporate interiors to theatrical scenery.

And for you sentimental types, the Memorial Arena in Belleville was on the market briefly this year with an asking price of $499,000 (Canadian). According to listing agent Joe Shunock of Ekort Realty Ltd., there was great interest (and some interesting proposals), but last month’s local elections got in the way of a sale going through. Although the listing has been temporarily pulled, look for the Memorial Arena to be back on the market in 2019.