MILTON — Families loved the Max Ulin Ice Rink, a place where they could skate for free, get rental skates for growing feet, and buy a cup of hot chocolate at the snack bar while the Zamboni machine polished the ice. Back in 2009, when the state still ran the rink, records show that managers opened the doors for 40 hours of public skating during December school vacation.
But today, skate rentals are no longer available, the skate-sharpening machine is gone, and the snack bar is usually closed. There’s still free public skating, but the hours are unpredictable and often inconvenient — just 22 hours during the last December vacation.
Across the region, privately managed state-owned skating rinks such as Ulin Rink offer significantly less public ice time than their state-run counterparts — whether for free or a for a fee — and less than the minimum of 16 hours a week required by state rules.
The eight rinks managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation typically provide almost 20 hours a week of free public skating, compared with an average of 12.5 hours at the other state-owned rinks, based on current schedules. And the 34 rinks run by towns or private groups often charge admission.
The changes are the downside of privatization at the DCR, a cash-strapped state agency that, for more than two decades, has been turning over management of skating rinks and other recreational facilities to private companies, local governments, and nonprofits. New managers often bring private investment to maintain the facilities but sometimes at a hidden cost to the public.
“It stinks when they take away hours because [then] there is nothing for the kids to do,” said Sarah Lacombe, a Milton resident who skated at the rink as a child and now brings her two children.
DCR officials say they don’t have nearly the resources to make sure private managers of their skating rinks, yacht clubs, boathouses, concession stands, and other facilities follow state rules. The DCR has issued roughly 1,200 permits and leases for private uses of its lands, but only five employees oversee compliance with these contracts.
“Each of these leases has scores and scores of terms and conditions associated with them that the operators are required to address and adhere to,” said Jack Murray, DCR commissioner. “But I will admit that we don’t have the opportunity to ensure that every single one of these contracts are being adhered to.”
Officials at FMC Ice Sports, a private company that manages 19 state-owned rinks, said state officials agreed to allow them to offer fewer than 16 hours a week of public skating at some rinks and gave them discretion to drop some public skating times that don’t draw significant crowds.
“If we’ve got, for instance, a session that is lightly attended, we can drop a session to get 60 or 80 kids on the ice as part of a high school hockey program,” FMC president Rob McBride explained. “As long as we have a good rationale of delivering public service, we are given some discretion.”
In Milton, the reason for the changes hangs high on banners on the walls of Ulin Rink: the Curry College Colonels. The private college now manages the $4 million state facility, and Curry College hockey rules the roost, sometimes bumping public skating and youth hockey practice to suit its needs.
Curry officials concede they have not strictly followed all of DCR’s rink management rules — Ulin typically offers fewer than eight hours of free skating each week. But Curry officials defend their management, saying they have followed all the requirements issued by the town , which selected Curry to run Ulin and oversees Curry’s management.
Curry has invested more than $500,000 in the rink since 2010.
“Our intent has always been to act in the best interests of the larger community,” Curry spokeswoman Fran Jackson said in a statement. “We are confident that all aspects of our operations are in keeping with the spirit of our contract with the town of Milton.”
In Milton, where Curry College took over management of the skating rink five years ago, public grumbling about the effects of privatization has become common.
‘Why does Curry all of a sudden get preference over a nonprofit youth program? It’s because they are running the rink.’Bill Naumann, Norwood Youth Hockey president
“There’s many pluses for Curry managing, but again, Curry looks out for Curry. That’s the No. 1 focus,” said Phil Zona, a Milton Youth Hockey board member who used to run the skate shop at Ulin until March of last year. “We need someone in there that looks out for the community, and the kids.”
That’s what DCR officials thought they were doing in 2010 when they handed Ulin Rink over to the town of Milton. But Milton officials quickly realized that voters wouldn’t support much-needed investment to maintain the facility, so they began looking for a private manager with deeper pockets.
Enter Curry College, a 2,100-student private college and one of Milton’s biggest employers. Located roughly a mile from Ulin, Curry had played home hockey games at the rink for decades and offered to take over management. While other groups expressed interest in running the rink — including a group of youth hockey coaches and administrators — Curry seemed like the best choice because of its financial resources and experience in facilities management.
The college’s investments in the rink include more than $340,000 in operating losses and $45,000 to insulate the rink’s ceiling and sidewall.
However, the contract also saved money for Curry, including about $220,000 in rent the college would have paid over several years for ice time. In addition, Curry has avoided the expense of building its own multimillion-dollar hockey rink.
The college has run Ulin more like a business than DCR did, keeping the rink open for more weeks, and, as a result, offering more cumulative hours of public skating. But Curry has also shifted prime skating time to other activities that produce income in order to reduce its financial losses.
Milton officials agreed to a 2013 contract change giving Curry “sole discretion” of allocation of ice time. After that, Curry took a popular, two-hour chunk of public skating on Friday evenings, and sold one hour to the Commonwealth Figure Skating Club, which pays the highest rental rate of $200 an hour. That left just one hour for public skating, compared with the state-required minimum of two consecutive hours.
In December, Ulin Rink averaged just 7½ hours of public skating each week, half the state minimum, and some local skaters complain that even those hours are often during weekdays when working people aren’t free to use the rink.
“Curry really dominates this whole rink. They are first, and everyone else is bottom-feeders, or somewhere down the food chain,” said Paul O’Neill, a Milton High School hockey player years ago.
Curry has also clashed with local youth hockey clubs that serve hundreds of area children. Curry has repeatedly given preference to its growing hockey program over local youth hockey teams, though school officials note they still set aside more time for youth hockey than their own teams.
Norwood Youth Hockey president Bill Naumann said the college has managed the rink fairly well, but the Colonels have snatched up ice time that had been allocated for his team practices.
“We have had some issues where all of sudden — since Curry took over management — we show up and Curry is using the ice,” Naumann said. “This is our hour, so why does Curry all of a sudden get preference over a nonprofit youth program? It’s because they are running the rink.”
Last season, five Milton youth hockey practices were taken over by Curry, said Mark Conforth, the group’s ice coordinator. This season, Curry will bump three Milton youth hockey practices for home games.
Now, the Legislature is debating whether to offer a long-term lease on the Ulin Rink when Curry’s contract expires April 30. College officials have not said whether they want to continue as managers, but some observers say it makes sense for the school to continue.
“Curry College has special interest: They want to make this place attractive to players who are coming here and looking at their college,” said Liam Fahey, a Milton resident who runs the Zamboni at Ulin. “They don’t necessarily need to make money.”
The town has expressed interest in running the rink, but it’s unclear whether the public would support investment in the facility. A new private manager could also step in, but that would trigger a provision in Curry’s current contract requiring the town or the new manager to reimburse the college for the $500,000 it invested in Ulin.
One thing is clear: The state is in no position to take Ulin back after budget cuts in recent months. But DCR officials also struggle to keep up with overseeing all the properties it has leased out, counting on Milton officials to oversee Ulin.
“Staffs do their best,” former commissioner Edward Lambert said. “But due to budget cuts many years ago, the agency never recovered from having the capacity to ensure that every unique agreement was being lived up to.”
Free public skating hours at state-owned rinks
Privately managed state-owned skating rinks managed by private groups or towns offer significantly less public ice time than their state-run counterparts and less than the minimum of 16 hours a week required by state rules.
NOTE: Schedules not available for Canton, Everett and Lynn
DATA: Posted online skating schedules for this week
Gabriel Florit / Globe Staff