IROC’s champion hasn’t given up hope

IROCby Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 4-3-13

NEWPORT — Phil White, IROC’s most visible and stubborn defender, wasn’t particularly anxious to talk about the place on Monday morning.  The night before he’d succumbed to what was pretty much inevitable by then.

Following IROC’s last event — the home show on Sunday — he’d dropped off the keys in a deposit box for Community National Bank, its new owner.  If he was sad, he didn’t admit it.  Still, it was clear enough that it was an emotional parting, although Mr. White is not yet ready to write the recreational facility’s obituary.

IROC had until April 1 to come up with over $1-million or face foreclosure.  Mr. White’s last-ditch efforts to get a time extension or somehow raise the money fell short, and IROC closed for good Sunday afternoon.

Mr. White continues to hold out hope that the facility will reopen with a new owner.  In the course of an interview he suggested that foreclosure might just be a necessary phase to get the facility out from under its debilitating debt.

“I don’t like to give up until there is nothing else that can be done,” he said.  “Until the facility is sold as a garage, or knocked down, it’s still available to be bought.  I’m hoping that one or more individuals will buy it.  The bank hasn’t drained the pool yet,” he added hopefully.

Steve Marsh, president and CEO of Community National Bank, said it’s likely to be a while before the bank drains the pool.  The next step for the bank is to go back to court and make matters official, he said.  Then, at some point, the bank will put the facility up for sale.

IROC, which has not made mortgage payments in months, owes over $1-million, Mr. Marsh said, and the last time an appraisal was done the facility was not worth that.  In this case, the bank’s loss, even if it sells the place for less than what’s owed, will be no more than 10 percent because the loan was guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, which would limit the bank’s losses on what was a risky undertaking.

“When this whole thing started it was a thin deal to start with, but we felt it was in the best interests of the community to have it,” Mr. Marsh said.  “That’s why we financed it when others wouldn’t.  “Our hope is that it will be sold to someone who will continue its current use.”

So far no one has showed up with a checkbook, he said.  “There are no potential buyers that I’m aware of.”

Mr. White, who is a lawyer by profession, got involved with IROC back in 2006 when he was asked to take over as chairman of the board.

He said he was much impressed with the arena and thought it was a valuable community asset.

That arena was originally supposed to be an ice rink.  The fact that it isn’t continues to rankle some, who had hoped, among other things, to see North Country Union High School’s hockey program move from the ice rink in Stanstead, Quebec, to Derby.  These days, North Country students play at Jay Peak.

IROC never did turn into a place for people to skate, and its big central arena has been used primarily for events, such as the Northeast Kingdom History Fair and the North Country Chamber of Commerce Home Show, both held last week.

“I don’t think that what I started doing was much different from what a lot of people do,” Mr. White said about his efforts to help the struggling facility stay afloat.  Lots of people donate time to causes, he said, and there are many people who have done more to save IROC from oblivion than he has.

One day, he’d scheduled an 11 a.m. appointment with the bank to turn over the keys.  An hour and a half before the meeting, Carl and Susan Taylor donated $100,000, he said, and IROC stayed open.

The recreational facility was losing money every year and was about $3-million in debt when Mr. White inherited chairmanship of the board.  “I feel pretty good about half of that getting taken care of,” he said about the debt.

The bank, he said, has been about as patient as it could be.  “Community National Bank has been terrific to work with.  They’ve given us lots of options and as much time as we could conceivably ask for.  I think we tried everything, and we just couldn’t get that debt paid off.”

As chairman of the board, Mr. White began to take a closer look at the facility and its potential uses, as well as possible money makers.

“I started seeing the value of IROC as a fitness center,” he said.  “We really opened it up to low-income folks and started the youth initiative so kids could come for free.  That was inspiring.”

Ten years ago, people were talking about the need for kids to have a place to go, Mr. White said.  “Then there it was.”

One night, at IROC, he found every basketball court filled with teenagers — 40 or 50 of them all playing basketball without benefit of adults organizing a special event.

“They’d just said let’s go hang out at IROC,” Mr. White said.  “That was the vision.  I felt good that more of that was happening.”

But it didn’t pay the bills.

“I think we realized early on that IROC needed to be both an indoor and an outdoor recreation facility,” Mr. White said.  “And also that we needed to get out of debt.”

Towards that end, he organized the Tour de Kingdom, a one- to five-day recreational and cycling event that is just what its name suggests — a tour of the Kingdom.  The first year, 50 locals participated.  The second year, people from out of the area attended, as well, and said the event was even better than The Prouty, a cycling event organized by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center that raised over $2-million in 2008.

“I figured we didn’t need to raise that kind of money, but special events could be the key to long-term success,” Mr. White said.

Those special events have grown to the point where, this year — and there will be a this year for special events — 25 days of running, biking, swimming and kayaking are planned.  Special events include the Dandelion Run, the Tour de Kingdom, the Kingdom Triathlon, and the Kingdom Swim, which is now a world championship event.

The success of special events and ever increasing participation “had its own motivational force on me,” Mr. White said, explaining why he tried so valiantly to keep IROC open.  “And then there’s this trial lawyer in me that doesn’t like to lose.”

Special events will continue, Mr. White said.   “We’ll find a home, I’m sure.  We can live off the land.  We have four or five hundred people signed up for them, and I don’t think we’ll just tell them to go home.  They’re of incredible value to the community and worth running with or without IROC.”

Special events raised about $200,000 a year, and donations from towns amounted to roughly $3,200 this year, Mr. White said.  “And I think, over time, that would continue to grow.”

Strategy for saving IROC from foreclosure included cutting expenses as well as raising money.  Solar panels decreased the propane bill by $3,000 to $3,500 a year, and payroll was basically halved to about $200,000 a year from a little more than $400,000 in 2006, Mr. White said.  He said that, in 2008, about $700,000 had been pledged to the organization, but those pledges evaporated by December of that year as the economy tanked.

“I think if we had had the time and were out of debt and not facing imminent foreclosure, we estimated it could run.”

IROC benefitted from about $50,000 to $75,000 a year in donations, Mr. White said, and there were more lined up to contribute an ongoing, if not huge, base of contributions.

“So there is a model on which it could be run.  It wasn’t just big donations.  There were hundreds, even thousands, who donated what they could.  It could well be the doors are closed on that as a recreation center for good.  It could also be a phase that was necessary to deal with the debt.  What we estimate is that, without the debt and property taxes, we can run it.”

Mr. White said he has no idea why IROC failed so spectacularly in its first years, or why the facility never became self-sustaining.  Perhaps, it was all just based on hope to start with — hope that the community would support it, and it would somehow work out, he said.

What he saw in terms of the facility’s use, however, inspired him to devote his skill set to ramping up its activities and membership, and to try, against all odds, to keep going.

“What I saw was increasing use of IROC by all aspects of the community,” Mr. White said.  “Seniors complained about kids splashing in the water fountains, and kids complained about seniors walking too slow on the walking track.”

In 2011-2012, about 3,500 adults had signed up for some kind of membership, Mr. White said.  And at least an equal number of young people were using the facility for free.  When all types of memberships and passes were added up, the total indicated that about 20 to 25 percent of the people in the area were using IROC, he said.

“I feel there’s an awful lot of good that’s come out of the facility,’ he said.  “I’d see people losing 50 to 100 pounds, people whose lives were changed.  Kids had a place to play.  A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see something that says, this is why I’m doing it.”

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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