By Theresa D. McClellan
For the For Bend Star
It’s been three weeks since Aaron Sanchez hit the ice after the Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center closed its doors, but the 18-year-old Lake Jackson High School senior was back in his element Saturday teaching young ones to skate.
“It was so frustrating when it was closed and we were really praying for a good outcome. But you know, during those three weeks off I got to work on my AP testing and senior variety show. Now we’re back so God had it under control,” said Sanchez who travels an hour to skate and coach in Sugar Land.
When he is not teaching children to skate, Sanchez also volunteers as a coach for the STARskaters.org Skate Therapy program and was featured as a coach in a video showing the importance of the therapy program for adults and youths with disabilities.
Sanchez said he and his family skated together every Saturday then he started volunteering as a coach four years ago. The therapy program allowed him to share his love of skating and give back to the community. All that stopped when the Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center owner and interim general manager Pritesh Shah closed the doors to the popular community spot on April 20.
Shah sent notice last week that the rink would re-open Saturday with repairs completed. He publicly thanked Pat Otero for a “generous donation” and named Otero the community representative on their new management team that includes a figure skating and hockey director, a special events and birthday party coordinator and operations manager. Shah, whose real estate company owns the building, is serving as the interim general manager.
The rink closed after a chiller malfunctioned. Shah also thanked Aggreko for providing the necessary equipment at a reduced rate. It is unclear how long the rink will remain open.
“There is still a considerable amount of work remaining and many obstacles to overcome. The (chiller) unit has been rented for 30 days. The next step is to get the compressors repaired or rebuilt. We are confident that with the management team put in place, we can be successful,” Shah said in a prepared statement.
Otero said his wife is involved with the skate therapy program and his two girls skate.
“The closing had a profound impact on the kids with disabilities that participated in the program along with the volunteer coaches who missed that interaction. My family has gotten a lot of joy out of skating so I am working to help out everyone,” Otero said.
Kristina Norlander of Sugar Land was one parent who was glad to see the return. She sat in the stands Saturday watching her daughter on the ice.
“We come here every day but Sunday and this really hurt to have those doors closed,” she said.
“I was hoping the city would take over but it looks like that is not going to happen,” she added.
During that three week period they were closed, Sugar Land Ice supporters collected more than 5,000 signatures in an online petition asking the City of Sugar Land to get involved and operate the facility until they got a new buyer.
Phil Wagner, the city’s public/private partnerships manager, issued a notice last week stating the city would not get involved in what it called a private business matter.
“The city will not provide taxpayer resources to support this private business. Any future involvement in ownership or operation to an ice rink, just like any other city amenity, will need to be considered during the appropriate master planning and budgeting process,” Wagner wrote in his letter to residents who asked for the city’s help.
Disappointed but undaunted, now supporters of the rink from the ice skating community, figure skating and hockey communities have come together with a plan to keep the rink open with a commitment from the owner to make repairs and maintain the business at 16225 Lexington Blvd.
“Without Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center, so many who love skating will no longer be able to continue. There simply will not be enough ice in the Houston area to accommodate the many groups that use the ice in Sugar Land – youth and adult hockey leagues, figure skating, synchronized skating, Skate Therapy, public skating and field trips to the rink will no longer be an option,” Michelle Ross stated in a letter to the ice community.
Ross is co-president of the Texas Gulf Coast Figure Skating Club. She shares the position with Pam Wichmann, whose term ends at the end of June.
“The goal has been set for the skating community to raise $60,000 to help pay for the necessary repairs to get the rink open and keep it open in the coming years. Nearly $10,000 has already been collected,” she said.
“The support for bringing back the rink has been tremendous, and reaching the target amount shouldn’t be too difficult. If everyone gives a little, no one has to give a lot,” said Ross.
Under their plan, the Texas Gulf Coast Figure Skating Club has established a separate dedicated account to have funds paid directly to vendors for repairs and services rendered. Those donations are not tax deductible. The skating community will not own the rink or be liable and no money will be paid directly to the owners. She said their plan was reviewed and approved by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
In an open letter on their website, Ross explained, “the owners are being very cooperative and are working hard to get the rink up and running. The rink being down costs them an enormous amount of money and they have no benefit in fixing the chillers and shutting the rink.”
Ross said they are also planning some fundraising events such as a barbecue and a possible skate-a-thon to pay for a portion of the repairs. They are also looking at creating t-shirts to boost awareness and raise funds.
“I was working the Learn to Skate check-in table and it was a joy to see so many happy children eager to skate again,” Ross said.
For 7-year-old Shloke Dave’ it was exciting to return to the ice. The Sugar Land youngster was all smiles as his mother Hema Dave’ and coach Sanchez fitted him with skates.
“This is good,” said the youngster.
For more information or to donate, visit http://texasgulfcoastfsc.org.