By Laura Jean Whitcomb
The parking lot is huge. The brick building seems even bigger. The entrance, with its four white columns, feels a bit imposing. But walk through the glass doors of the Union Arena Community Center in Woodstock, Vt., and you’re standing in a cozy waiting area. Concession stand to the left, tables and chairs to the right. A few steps more, and you’ll see, beyond the glass, a four-season, multipurpose venue that can be used as an ice rink, concert venue, circus camp, roller derby track, and much, much more.
“If there is something you like, it can be done here,” says Dan French, general manager. “If it doesn’t happen now, we can add it. The building was designed so it can handle just about anything.”
That’s the beauty of Union Arena. In 1992, a group of volunteers began to raise funds for the construction of the indoor ice rink. “Youth hockey and figure skating were growing in Woodstock,” says French. Building just an ice rink wasn’t really financially viable — but building a community center was. With great attention to detail, the group planned a building that would meet the needs of Woodstock, and beyond, for many years to come.
Need a place to have a concert? The Union Arena has acoustical decking, with two feet of insulation between the ceiling and the roof. “There’s no echo, no tinny sound like in other arenas,” says French. There’s a state-of-the-art Peavey sound system and a seven speaker console suspended from the center of the arena. And the Zamboni door is designed to welcome a tractor trailer, so it is possible to truck in all the necessary concert equipment.
Or how about a location for an annual antique show? There’s 17,000 feet of usable space, and the floor can support any weight. How about a two-week long circus camp in the summer? Union Arena provides a location like no other: with hooks on the ceiling the campers are able to practice bungee jumps and climb silk ropes, “something they can’t do at other locations,” says French.
The more you think about it, you’re standing in a mini-Boston Garden. From a functional point of view (electrical system, location of the mechanicals and easy maintenance), Union Arena can have all the same events that the Boston Garden did, but just with a smaller seat capacity. The Boston Bruins have played the Garden and, well, they’ve played at Union Arena, too.
In less than 24 hours, the building can transform from an ice rink to an event center. Community events have ranged from a tag sale (a really big one) to agriculture shows to school graduations. Athletic activities include six months of winter ice and six weeks of summer ice for adult and youth ice hockey, figure skating and public skating; spring and fall indoor sports including field hockey, soccer, baseball and lacrosse; and senior, preschool and handicapped exercise programs in all seasons.
The fundraising didn’t happen all at once, but over time. “The arena was designed for additions,” says French, who has been with the project since the early 1990s, manager between 2004 and 2006, and back as general manager since 2011. “When the initial fundraising wasn’t met in 2003, the architect, Harold Mayhew, took out things like a skate sharpener and a sound system. People wrote checks later and we were able to add them in.” One example: there was an ice rink, but no seating, so a family wrote a $50,000 check for bleachers. Even today, the arena’s business model is self-supportive; the community venue does not receive any financial support from the town or school.
Which is even more surprising, once you see the family-friendly prices. A family of four (two adults and two children under age 14) could skate for an afternoon at the arena for $20. It’s even less if you’re a member: $12. Membership is $85 for a family and $35 for an individual, or you could opt for a variety of passes: public skate season pass, a public skate frequent skater pass, or an open stick season pass for pick-up hockey games.
With 2013 marking Union Arena’s tenth anniversary — or arenaversary — there’s been a few more free public events (see sidebar) and a request for donations to ensure the arena’s future success. “We’d like to go green,” says French, “and focus on energy efficiency.” Donations to the Anniversary Fund will also keep user costs down, so that family of four will still be able to skate the day away.
Learn more at unionarena.org
Did You Know?
Union Arena brings 50,000 people to the Upper Valley each year — and more than $1 million in economic benefits.
Originally published in the November/December/January 2013 issue of Kid Stuff.