City hopes to launch new holiday attraction

Ice skating rink scrapped; tubing hills won’t likely be ready by winter

After months of discussions and extensive follow-up talks Wednesday, the El Dorado Advertising and Promotion and Murphy Arts District have reached a decision about MAD on Ice.

The groups are not yet sure what the 2023 holiday attraction will look like, but they are certain that it will not include an ice-skating rink this year.

Further, they agreed on a funding request to purchase a tubing hill facility.

Whether the materials are delivered in time for the 2023 holiday season remains to be seen.

MAD on Ice: 2.0

The A&P commission and MAD have spent the past several months coming up with ideas to reinvigorate Mad on Ice, which launched in 2019.

Dubbed MAD on Ice: 2.0, the effort picked up steam last spring after MAD reported a profit loss of nearly $30,000 for the 2022 - 2023 season of MAD on Ice.

In March, Pam Griffin, president and CEO of MAD, told A&P commissioners that loss stemmed primarily from a revenue shortfall and an increase in expenses for the fourth annual ice-skating rink event, which ran Nov. 19, 2022 - Jan. 2, 2023.

Earned revenue items -- tickets, season passes, skate rentals, skating aids and food and beverages -- reportedly fell $12,000 below budget projections, Griffin said.

Additionally, the number of skaters who pay to skate at MAD on Ice has leveled off at 4,500 over the past couple of years as the country emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

MAD also contended with an unexpected, $13,000 expenditure to cover issues that arose with finding the proper chiller to keep the ice frozen and she said utility costs rose for the 2022 - 2023 season.

The cost to rent the rink and related materials has also risen steadily since 2019, pushing annual operating expenditures past $200,000 per year.

"We've been doing the same thing for four years now and while it's good, we're not seeing the increases that we would like to see," Griffin said. "So, then it begs the question, 'Do we continue doing this?' Is it something the community wants us to do? Is it something the A&P wants us to do?"

MAD subsequently presented the idea for tubing tracks, either as a standalone attraction or an addition to the ice-skating rink.

The A&P commission formed an ad-hoc committee -- comprised of commissioners Dianne Hammond and Kelli Harrison and former Commissioner Maria Simpson -- to sit on a joint panel with MAD and develop ideas for a 2023 holiday attraction in El Dorado.

On Wednesday, the group returned with more details, including costs, about the tubing hills and news that they had missed deadlines to lock in a lower price-quote for an ice-skating rink.

Tubing hills

Hammond kicked off the conversation, saying "I think this is something the commission ought to make a decision on ... not just Kelli and I."

Hammond noted that deadlines to book an ice-skating rink at a lower rate expired as the A&P subcommittee and MAD spent months fleshing out ideas for the 2023 holiday season.

She then pointed to a funding request, which totaled $147,971.83, to purchase materials for the tubing hills.

Benji Brown, MAD IT manager, explained that since plans for the ice-skating rink have cooled, the tubing hills will be a standalone attraction and the lanes will be expanded from two, as was initially proposed, to four.

Previous discussions called for a two-lane tubing track to be added to the ice-skating rink.

"If you're going to do a tubing hill only, then we have to expand the tubing. It actually costs pretty much as close as the ice rink by itself," Brown said.

"If we were doing a tubing hill only, we thought the only way to make it functional was to expand it," he added.

The facility would include four lanes that are 6 feet wide and 150 - 200 feet long and a "bunny slope" that is 10 - 15 feet long.

Brown said the expansion would help alleviate wait times in line.

He also noted that while the ice-skating rink has a capacity of up to 75 skaters at once, "in this case, I can only shove four people down a hill at the same time."

"Now, are we purchasing anything or is this all rental?" Commissioner Alan Meadows asked.

Brown said the funding request is to purchase tubing implements, with hopes that the request will be reduced exponentially in 2024.

He also said the ice-free tubing hill could be used modularly throughout the city year-round.

"So, we could have Christmas in July," Brown said.

A&P chairman Don Miller agreed, adding, "And we can move the tubing facility anywhere that we had the room."

Brown said the tubing hill could be modified, shortened and lengthened, to fit within space that is available.

He said the equipment purchase would not be a reoccurring expense. Materials include ramps, scaffolding, tubes, lane dividers, etc.

However, he said some of the wood that is used to build the ramps may be damaged by water that is used for the slides.

The wood would likely have to be replaced every three to five years, said Brown.

He said the wood be treated to help sustain it as long as possible, noting that the treated lumber underneath the ice rink is the same wood that has been used since 2019.

"And to be fair, it stays soaking wet all the time," Brown said.

Overall, the tubing equipment is expected to last a number of years.

"The company we talked to, they leave it out all year long and they're talking about seven to 10 years of use out of it and on a snow slopes," Brown said, adding that the equipment that is purchased for the local tubing hill will be stored indoors.

He later said a quote to rent a tubing facility was $175,000 for a 75-foot slide on a "fake ice hill."

Hammond inquired about $18,000 that had been included in the funding proposal to promote the tubing facility, saying that MAD can join with other organizations -- including the Diamond Agency, Main Street El Dorado, the Downtown Business Association and the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce -- to promote the holiday attraction.

Hammond added that the Diamond Agency is the A&P's ad agency of record and the city has a contract for services with the chamber to serve as the economic development arm for El Dorado.

Additionally, MSE, the DBA and MAD, with assistance from the Diamond Agency, have teamed up for the past few years to market and promote the holiday season in El Dorado.

The A&P commission has financially supported the promotional effort.

For the past two years, the groups have targeted Central Arkansas, North Louisiana and East Texas and have reported an increase in the number of visitors -- particularly from Shreveport, Louisiana -- to downtown El Dorado during the holidays.

The theme for the 2023 holiday campaign is, "Oh What Fun It is To ..."

"I think that cost could go down considerably," said Hammond.

Brown said he did not know how the joint holiday marketing effort was structured.

"So, the $18,000 being the same across the board, I left it there because our whole point is ... we're trying to reach outside the city, not inside the city, to pull people in," he said.

"And so, I don't feel the advertising budget goes down for that. It stays the same because we're trying to reach just as far and the (further) we reach, the more it costs," Brown continued.

He said MAD welcomes any ideas for supplemental advertising.

Miller noted that the tubing hill does not provide space for many sponsorship opportunities.

For instance, Brown said placards may be posted along the bumpers of the ice-skating rink, but such space is not available with the tubing hill.

Neither is the opportunity for video ads.

He also reiterated that MAD would not be able to cycle as many people through the tubing hill facility as with the skating rink.

Miller said sponsorship opportunities may be malleable to the number of times the tubing facility is used throughout the year.

Brown said MAD could possibly build a sponsorship package to suit such a situation.

"But at this point, the plan is for the holidays only," he said.

Miller said the sentiment of the A&P commission is to be "tactical and thoughtful" about advertising and tie into holiday activities in downtown El Dorado.

He also said there have been some concerns about labor costs to operate the tubing hill.

Total labor expenses are projected at $65,000, $43,000 of which would be allocated for hourly employees (four "catchers," two "pushers," two cashiers, and two facilitators to cart tubes to the top of the hill).

Brown said hourly workers would also help keep tubers safe, i.e., preventing someone from "supermanning" or falling "face first" down a hill.

He noted that the bunny slope would not be manned.

Hammond said tubers will also be able to ride in tandem with two tubes that are hooked together.

"So, if a parent wanted to go down with a child, they could right?" she said.

Brown answered yes and explained that the tubes will be tethered by a bungee cord contraption.

Other labor costs include $14,000 for production/facilities and $7,000 for setup and takedown.

Other questions

Miller also inquired about pricing/admission for the tubing hill.

The cost would be $10 for unlimited tubing, said Brown.

He referred to the ice-skating rink, telling commissioners that skating was unlimited with the price of admission and visitors rarely skated longer than an hour or an hour and a half.

Meadows asked about installation time "from nothing set up to completely ready to go."

Brown said the first year will be an education curve for MAD.

He said the budget includes labor costs for approximately two weeks to assemble materials and a few hours to set up the facility for events.

Miller asked if materials are expected to be delivered and the plan for the new attraction to be executed in time for the 2023 holiday season.

"If you want my gut and honest reaction, it's no." Brown said.

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