Bergen Record Article on the John T. Wright Ice Arena

17 June 2013 197 views No Comment

Dear Residents,

I have pasted below an Article that was published in the Bergen Record in case you may have missed it.

It was first published on June 9, 2013. 


Mayor Frank Huttle

Ice rink is at the center of a divided Englewood

Sunday, June 9, 2013    



The Record

From the day it opened more than 30 years ago in the heart of Englewood’s minority neighborhood, the Mackay Park ice rink held the promise of being a symbol of inclusion, a place where the wealthiest and poorest residents could come together and have fun.

But over the years, the John T. Wright Arena has, instead, become a symbol of privilege and division, as well-off residents and out-of-town teams began claiming the rink as their own, making some residents, particularly those in the working-class 4th Ward, feel unwelcome.

“The symbol that I would use to describe what this building has become is one of an invasion — an occupation,” said Melvin Drakeford, head of the Mackay Park Legacy Committee, a community booster group.

Those grievances exposed long-standing racial and class divisions in this small city of 30,000 that, in the past, has seen protests over school segregation and street clashes over civil rights. More recently, 4th Ward residents objected last fall to outsourcing by the public school district, whose student population remains overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Their anger over about 100 employees losing their jobs carried over this year and contributed, officials say, to derailing the city’s plans to repair and renovate the Mackay Park arena, which now sits dormant.

The divisions are largely rooted in frustration over how, and on whom, the city spends taxpayer money. Leaders and activists in the  4th Ward say the city has made the rink a high priority while overlooking other needs, such as a community center, and allowing their neighborhood — including Mackay Park — to decline.

“The rink has not really served the whole community, especially the community in the 4th Ward,” said Shirley Smith, a former school board member who has lived in the 4th Ward for nearly 50 years.

Those resentments helped fuel opposition to the city’s plan to borrow $675,000 to fix the rink, which was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Councilman Wayne Hamer, who represents the 4th Ward, cast the deciding vote that defeated the borrowing plan, one day after scores of residents criticized it at a public meeting in a Baptist church.

“[Opponents] may have had a chip on their shoulder because of the political abuse they’ve received over the years,” said James “Sid” Jordan, a retired builder who served on the Planning Board for 30 years. “They were ignored.”

Mayor Frank Huttle wants that to change. He is asking the residents from all parts of Englewood who have been the most outspoken about the ice rink to serve on a 15-member task force that will advise the City Council on what to do with the shuttered arena. Huttle said he would not support reopening the rink unless it becomes a place that welcomed all of Englewood.

“If we’re going to have an ice arena, it’s going to be for the kids, for Englewood kids, not for kids living across the 70 towns in Bergen County,” he said,

Named after the city’s first black councilman, the ice rink opened in 1982 and initially was a source of community pride.

“When [the rink] was first built, it was exciting,” Smith said. “People came, and there was a good turnout from all the wards.”

The city paid for the rink with federal funding and a state Green Acres grant. Putting it in Mackay Park, a place of cultural significance to Englewood’s black community and which has played host to church picnics and civil rights rallies, was also a sign that times had changed — the area around the park was the scene of three days of rock-throwing, firebombing and looting during civil rights demonstrations in 1967.

But the ice rink struggled to pay for itself. After it operated in the red for two years, the city gave a 25-year contract to a private operator, Mackay Ice Arena Inc. To turn a profit, the private operator increasingly came to rely on hockey teams from communities such as Tenafly and other outside groups who could afford hundreds of dollars per hour for ice time.

“A lot of children from the 4th Ward were not able to use it, and interest went away,” Smith said.

Larry Reid, the former longtime rink operator, has said many of the figure skaters who used the rink for private lessons were from the East Hill, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood. He said he tried to involve the entire community with learn-to-skate programs and public skating hours, with mixed results.

Councilwoman-at-large Lynne Algrant said more people skated in the past few years, but the rink didn’t draw many 4th Ward residents, who had come to view it as a private club for their wealthier neighbors. “Of course people [in the 4th Ward] hated the ice arena,” she said.

When the long-term contract with Reid expired in 2009, the City Council approved a series of one-year extensions, which Algrant said included more free ice time for residents, and debated how to make the rink more accessible. Last year, the city advertised for a non-profit group to manage the rink for 10 years, with the stipulation that the new operator offer year-round programs with the profits made from skating and hockey.

Three groups offered to run the rink, and a divided council chose the Boys & Girls Club of Garfield. Huttle, as mayor, had to cast a tie-breaking vote to hire the Boys & Girls Club after the council deadlocked 2-2. Jack Drakeford, the 4th Ward councilman, had recently died and his seat was still vacant.

Councilmen Eugene Skurnick and Marc Forman were opposed, saying the organization had no experience running an ice rink; Councilman Michael Cohen, who represents the 2nd Ward, and Algrant were for it, saying they wanted a “brand name” connected to the rink and praised the club’s youth programs.

After the vote, the council agreed to invest $450,000 in the rink, removing an underground oil tank, buying a new Zamboni ice-surfacing vehicle and installing a new cooling tower, heating system and pipes. The arena was nearly ready for its grand reopening when Superstorm Sandy shredded the roof and shut it down for the first time in its history.

The tipping point for 4th Ward residents seemed to be when the city announced plans to double down on its investment and spend nearly $1 million, some of which would come from insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to repair the roof and refurbish the interior. That plan galvanized opponents who said it was time to take a stand against what they saw as the city’s misplaced goals.

“It was about the rink being made a priority over any and everything that the community was thinking about,” said Melvin Drakeford, who is not related to the late councilman.

The perception of past slights has made 4th Ward residents quick to take offense, even when city officials say their actions are innocent.

In a recent flap unrelated to the rink, an outspoken community activist questioned if the city was “at war” with the 4th Ward after it removed debris and topsoil from a vacant lot that had been used as a community garden. It left a “pond” after rainstorms this spring. According to officials, the city had been waiting until the ground dried out to replenish the topsoil.

Algrant said she understands the frustration on both sides but said residents didn’t give the Boys & Girls Club, or the city’s plan to fix the rink, a chance to succeed.

“There is a wound in the community that is absolutely legitimate,” she said. “But I think a lot of things are being conflated.”

Algrant and Huttle blame Skurnick for using the 4th Ward’s sensitivities for political gain by spreading rumors that the city was trying to outsource its Recreation Department by bringing in outsiders from Garfield. Those rumors came on the heels of the Board of Education’s decision to outsource nearly 100 secretaries and classroom assistants, many of whom were black and Hispanic women with ties to the 4th Ward.

Skurnick declined to respond to the charges, and city officials said the Recreation Department was never in jeopardy. But Algrant acknowledged that some people might have been more willing to believe the rumors because of built-up resentment toward the rink.

“I understand where it comes from,” she said. “But I also have to say that the level of it was built upon and drummed up by a calculated misinformation and disinformation campaign.”

Hamer, who was appointed to fill Jack Drakeford’s unexpired term, said his opposition was based on the city’s hazy plans for the rink. He said no one explained what programs would be offered once skating season ended or how they would be funded if skating and hockey programs failed to turn a profit.

“If it could’ve been done in a clear way, I think all of that [opposition] would have been blunted,” he said.

Others saw the city’s plan as a poor substitute for a community center, something that 4th Ward residents say they’ve spent decades lobbying for, ever since the city’s former community center on Armory Street became the privately run Bergen Family Center.

“I think anything short of a community center after waiting this long of a period of time is going to meet resistance,” Melvin Drakeford said.

The city’s reluctance to pursue the idea, some community activists say, has caused long-held resentment to smolder.

“It’s really upsetting, because 4th Ward people feel like they’re being ignored,” Smith said. “That’s caused a lot of division in the whole city.”

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