Ice skating rink closes, community rallies behind it

By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star

It’s more than a building. That is the message the owners of the Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center received from Houston area ice lovers upon hearing the building was permanently closed.

 Franchesca Forsythe is a 30-year-old diminutive young woman who barely looks 16. Dark sunglasses shield the fact that she was born without eyes. She feels none of her disability when she and her coach step onto the ice. “I feel free,” said Forsythe who looked forward to Saturdays where she dons her purple sparkly dress and glides across the ice with her coach.

Franchesca Forsythe is a 30-year-old diminutive young woman who barely looks 16. Dark sunglasses shield the fact that she was born without eyes. She feels none of her disability when she and her coach step onto the ice. “I feel free,” said Forsythe who looked forward to Saturdays where she dons her purple sparkly dress and glides across the ice with her coach.

Necessary repairs to the compressors and dehumidifiers needed to maintain required ice temperatures prompted the owner of the property at 16225 Lexington Blvd. in Sugar Land to announce last week that the doors would close permanently, unless they found a buyer for the building within 48 hours. The owners posted a closed sign on the door, employees cleaned out their lockers, regularly scheduled Sunday night amateur hockey games were cancelled and their Facebook page status changed to “closed permanently.”

News of the changes raced through the skating community on social media faster than a puck on ice, prompting multiple levels of concern. Within the week, figure skaters, hockey moms, referees and even the city of Sugar Land got involved after getting calls and more than 4,000 signatures on petitions asking for help.

The city held a meeting with the owners, Shah Companies Inc. in Sugar Land.

“We are looking at the economic impact, how it would affect the city. We heard the concerns of the community, we are evaluating the situation and trying to see if there is an appropriate answer,” said city official Phil Wagner.

0427-Franchesca_Forsysthe-Group

Jim O’Neill, (white hair far right) and Minsue Chen end (white jersey on end) stand with other supporters of the Sugar Land Ice Rink. Hockey players, figure skaters, hockey moms and disabled students say it would be wrong to keep the ice rink closed.

Wagner is the public/private partnership manager with the city’s economic development division.

“Our job is business recruitment, retention and growing the local economy,” Wagner said.

Wagner was present when the business owners of Shah Companies met with potential buyers from Dallas and Minnesota last week. Shah Companies is a real estate company in Sugar Land that acquired the property in 2004.

“We helped try to facilitate a conversation between the owners and a group that expressed concerns to see if anything could be done. There is a long term consideration that needs to be given to the viability of the rink in Sugar Land,” said Wagner.

Jim O’Neill, a hockey referee and founder of a skating therapy program called Star Skaters, is passionate about saving the rink.

“This is devastating to my program,” he said. “I think of my disabled therapy kids first, but also Sugar Land is home to one of the largest figure skating programs in the country and only a handful (of ice rinks) have something for kids with disability.”

Wagner cautioned that the city was not trying to take over anything even though they have received scores of calls and letters and an online petition gathered signatures asking the city to use its influence to keep the rink open.

Wagner said the city didn’t want to set that precedent.

“This is a private business and they have the ultimate determination and fate. Any other business wouldn’t want the city saying ‘you can’t make business decisions for your company owners,’ ” Wagner said.

Upon seeing the intense interest, the real estate company has softened its stance.

“We are overwhelmed by the passion that our community has for the Sugar Land Ice and Sports facility. Our priority is to keep the rink operational, as closing the facility would be a major setback to ice skating activities including learn-to-skate, figure skating, and ice hockey,” said Pritesh Shah, executive vice president of Shah Companies. “I am working diligently with multiple groups to keep the rink operational,” Shah said in a prepared statement to the Star.

That was music to the ears for O’Neill, who was already fielding calls from concerned moms of special needs skaters whose routine has been interrupted.

O’Neill said he has been a USA hockey referee for more than 3,000 games. In 2008 he and his wife founded Star Skaters, a skate therapy program that provides individualized coaching for children with a wide range of disabilities and challenges.

Once the equipment failed, the owners sent out a note stating if they did not have a buyer willing to pay $7.5 million within 48 hours they would shut down the rink. O’Neill made calls and organized a meeting with possible investors.

O’Neill said that as a referee he could see the 20-year-old facility was deteriorating. Four months ago he approached the economic development council.

“My Spidey sense was that this rink is one major equipment failure from going away,” he said.

Proponents want the city to take over the rink, which sits on five acres near the Fort Bend ISD headquarters on Lexington Boulevard and make it part of it’s park system.

“If the city took this over and made it a community center they could have jazzercise, drop-off day, luxury suites. It really could be a destination spot, and they could develop future athletes here,” O’Neill said.

“The city could facilitate a deal with FBISD, they could buy it themselves or if the city recognizes this as a valuable asset and doesn’t have the money to add to their portfolio, they could give the owner tax breaks or incentives,” suggested O’Neill.

He said Olympian Tara Lipinski once skated there as well as the NHL Buffalo Sabers’ 2008 first round draft pick Tyler Myers.

The Learn to Skate program serves 600-800 children and adults every semester, six semesters a year. The Texas Gulf Coast Figure Skating Club has nearly 300 members who train at the rink and three synchronized skating teams from Unity who appear nationally. Every year the rink holds the annual “Nutcracker on Ice” which had more than 125 skaters last year and has sellout performances for the last 17 years, said Michelle Ross, head of the Texas Gulf Coast Figure Skating Club.

“I’m hoping they will realize, this is not just a building with ice,” said O’Neill, who met his wife there.

Everyone has a story said another organizer, Teris Minsue Chen, who used her Facebook page “Houston Hockey Happy” to strategize and encourage everyone to sign the petition and share their stories with area politicians and potential donors in emails, calls, letters and video. There is the current general manager of the rink who started working there as a hostess when she was l5. There are young skaters whose dreams of national attention have been thwarted as they scramble to find ice time to ready for the next season. There is the hockey mom Fran Andes who found a second family as she watched her daughter switch sports and blossom under the program then challenged herself to pick up the skates.

And there is 30-year-old Franchesca Forsythe, a diminutive young woman who barely looks 16. Dark sunglasses shield the fact that she was born without eyes. She feels none of her disability when she and her coach step onto the ice.

“I feel free,” said Forsythe, who looked forward to Saturdays where she dons her purple sparkly dress and glides across the ice with her coach.

“It doesn’t matter what your disability. If you want to try, they will make a way for you and she is using every muscle but it’s fun for her, it’s not like therapy,” said her mother Angela Forsythe.

“She doesn’t understand why this happens,” said her mother, who fought back tears.

The doors are closed and though she can’t read the printed sign on the glass door, Francesca knows what it feels like to be shut out.

She doesn’t use many words but the ones she does, she wants to count, “Please, let me skate.”

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