Dwindling club membership, competition for ice time and mounting bills may force the closure of a club that's been in the Tri-Cities for 24 years.
The nonprofit Tri-Cities Figure Skating Club might only be able to operate for another year to 18 months, said Bob Lober, club treasurer and co-vice president.
The group has had to pay $185 per hour to use the ice rink at the Toyota Arena, which is next to the Toyota Center in Kennewick, since it entered into a contract last year with arena operator VenuWorks of Ames, Iowa.
The club has spent more than $5,000 since April on ice time.
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Previously, skaters paid out of their own pocket as part of a punch card system, with hourly rates of $8 to $10 each, Lober said.
Now, the figure skating club has about $21,000 left in the bank, Lober said. It expects to bring in between $5,000 and $6,000 in the next year in sponsorships and membership fees, but that might not be enough to save the club.
"Our expenses have exceeded revenue since the contract implementation," he said.
For the club -- which has been in the Tri-Cities since 1989 -- to stay in business, it would need to get a break from the city of Kennewick, which owns the arena, Lober said. That would require the city to step in and tell VenuWorks to charge the club less.
But the city doesn't appear willing to make a change.
The skating club asked the Kennewick Public Facilities District to help it in its negotiations with VenuWorks last year, but wasn't successful, Lober said.
The district is responsible for the marketing and operations of the Toyota Center and arena through an agreement with the city of Kennewick. The district hires VenuWorks to operate the arenas.
Club officials also asked City Manager Marie Mosley to step in, but she told the club to work it out with VenuWorks, Lober said.
"Our real issue is not with the contractor," Lober said. "The contractor is doing what the contract (with the city) says to do -- make the most possible money."
Mosley could not be reached, but city spokeswoman Evelyn Lusignan said Mosley met with representatives from the club and VenuWorks on June 25. Lusignan said the city cannot reduce costs for the skating club.
"At this point, VenuWorks is doing its job to manage the facility and charge the necessary fees to do that," she said. "We cannot step in and say we need to charge these fees or reduce costs."
Kennewick Mayor Steve Young said it's important to keep the club.
"I think we need a skating club, and I hope it can be worked out," he said.
VenuWorks had little choice but to raise fees for the skating club, said Corey Pearson, executive director of the Three Rivers Campus, which includes the Toyota Center and arena, as well as the Three Rivers Convention Center.
Pearson said it would be unfair for the publicly-funded facility to charge one tenant less for the use of the ice than another.
"We've got a budget we've got to adhere to every year," he said.
The club has to "piggy back" and use time set aside for youth hockey or figure skating classes that the arena puts on just to get its three hours on the ice, Lober said.
He also said his club competes with the Tri-City Americans junior hockey team, the lower-level Tri-City Outlaws junior hockey team, a roller derby team, music group and amateur hockey.
"We get left with what's available," Lober said.
The club has 25 members, but fewer than a dozen are considered active skaters, Lober said. And they attend school, so they can't all make it to practice at the same time.
The club had 87 members at one time, Lober said. He blames recent drops in membership on young skaters moving over to arena-run skating programs.
The decrease in membership, as well as coach turnover, has affected the club, said Martha Leam, a senior at Richland High School.
"I'm really hoping it will get bigger," said Martha, 16, who has been a member of the club for six years. "If more people join, we'd have more money and be able to do more shows."
The club charges each skater $125 in membership dues, an increase from $100 last year, plus requires skaters to bring in $75 in fundraising, Lober said.
Operating a skating club can be competitive. Lober said clubs in other cities can offer skaters between 10 and 15 hours of ice time a week. He said rinks in Walla Walla, Wenatchee, Spokane and Cheney offer one to three hours of freestyle skating sessions per day for a walk-on fee.
LaRae Hudson, 15, a 10-year member of the club, said she would be happy with five to 10 hours on the rink each week. That would allow her and Martha to better pursue their shared dream of touring with Disney on Ice shows.
"That would really help to make our club bigger, and it would grow from there," said the sophomore from Liberty Christian School in Richland.
And while the arena offers classes for kids just learning to skate, Lober said his club is a place for them to go once they are ready for more advanced competition.
"I seriously believe that there is a productive and mutually beneficial path forward for both the club and the arena management, as we have had that synergy in the past," he said.
The arena would like to keep the club there too, Pearson said.
"We have ice available, but it's kind of a chicken or egg issue," Pearson said. "They need more ice time to attract more skaters, but with so few skaters it's hard to pay the cost."
The skaters hope something gets worked out.
"We're just trying to fulfill our dream, and any help would be nice," Martha said. "This is what we have a passion for and this is what we could see ourselves having a career in."
To learn more about the club, visit www.tcfigureskatingclub.org.
w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom