Hope melts for reopening Ice-Plex skating center in Escondido

Members of the Jr. Gulls youth hockey program at Ice-Plex in Escondido.
Members of the Jr. Gulls youth hockey program at Ice-Plex in Escondido. On Thursday, it was announced the Jr. Gulls program will relocate to The Rinks Poway Ice.
(Courtesy of Geoff Leibl)

Owners say 25-year-old complex is too expensive to operate and no other rink operator is interested


Geoff Leibl said there were always rumors that the Ice-Plex arena in Escondido was having financial problems. But when the owners of the 25-year-old ice-skating and gym complex announced July 2 that Ice-Plex — temporarily shuttered in March due to the pandemic — had closed for good, the news came as a shock.

Leibl is president of the Jr. Gulls, a 300-player youth hockey program that has been headquartered at Ice-Plex practically from the month it opened in early 1995 on North Tulip Street. Not only did the unexpected announcement leave the hockey program temporarily without a home, it also displaced figure skaters and coaches, broomball teams and The Fix Fitness Center, a recently remodeled gym with a 25-meter, four-lane indoor lap pool.

Since then, rumors have swirled among the hockey and skating communities about possible backroom deals, greedy owners and unspoken scandals causing the closure. But the truth is more simple. The nine-acre project’s owner, Southwest Generation in Colorado, had been losing between $100,000 and $200,000 a year on the facility since 2016 due to outdated equipment, high maintenance costs and the need for $2 million in retrofitting and repairs.

Ice-Plex, a 25-year-old ice skating complex and health club on Tulip Street in Escondido, closed its doors on July 2.
Ice-Plex, a 25-year-old ice skating complex and health club on Tulip Street in Escondido, closed its doors on July 2.
(Pam Kragen/San Diego Union-Tribune)

During the spring and early summer months of this year, Southwest Gen met with six different ice rink and hockey organizations who were interested in leasing the facility. But none of them signed on the dotted line because they couldn’t find a way to operate the center profitably. Southwest Gen had offered potential lessees a free, five-year lease on the property in exchange for the tenant agreeing to cover the $2 million in needed repairs.

Amber Tarrac, Escondido’s deputy director of economic development, said the city served as a liaison in bringing together some of the key players in the negotiations, but those efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful.

“The investors were looking at this and they realized they would have a really hard time recouping their investment with a limited lease,” Tarrac said.

While the gym that operated in the Ice-Plex center shut down for good, the Jr. Gulls program will rise again soon at a new home, The Rinks Poway Ice in Poway.

The hockey league’s move to Poway was announced Thursday after months of negotiations. Leibl praised Southwest Gen for its effort to find a new operator and its support of the league. Southwest Gen officials have donated $20,000 to support scholarships for needy youth players and they’re also planning to sell hockey equipment at Ice-Plex to donate to the Jr. Gulls program.

“They’re doing their best in a really bad situation,” Leibl said of Southwest Gen. “They run power plants, they don’t run ice rinks.”

A side view of the Goal Line power plant, which provides energy to adjacent Ice-Plex skating center
A side view of the Goal Line power plant, which provides energy to the adjacent Ice-Plex skating center, which recently closed.
(Pam Kragen/San Diego Union-Tribune)

The closure of Ice-Plex also displaced longtime figure skaters like Jennifer Byers, who started skating there seven years ago with her daughter, Nicole, who was 5 years old at the time. Both were beginners at the time. The hobby became a passion and mother and daughter both took part in multiple skating competitions and shows. After her husband passed away, Byers and her daughter moved to Escondido just to be closer to the rink for early morning practices.

“When the rinks closed down in March, we never imagined that for Ice-Plex it would be forever,” Byers said. “I still think I am going to wake, grab my skates and head down to the rink. While there are other rinks in the county, it is difficult to get to them with work and school schedules, and, of course, traffic. The end of Ice-Plex means the end of skating for many of the skaters and hockey players in the area. Still, I am hopeful that someone will build a new ice rink in Escondido. I am certain that all of the skaters and hockey players will come.”

Figure skater Jennifer Byers and her daughter, Nicole, at Ice-Plex.
Figure skater Jennifer Byers and her daughter, Nicole, at Ice-Plex in an undated photo.
(Courtesy of Jennifer Byers)

According to a former member of The Fix, the fitness center was sold to new owners in 2019, who had invested in many improvements including the resurfacing of the pool liner and deck. Membership was growing when it was forced to close in March. It never reopened.

Southwest Gen officials say the reasons why the Ice-Plex project shut down dates back many years. In the 1980s and ‘90s, a number of gas-powered “qualified” power plants were built around the country, including the Escondido plant, which is named Goal Line. These plants produced and sold energy to utility companies and the steam byproduct of that energy was used to run connected businesses like the 77,000-square-foot Ice-Plex facility. Ice-Plex converted the steam from the plant into power that chilled its two ice rinks, warmed its indoor pool, powered the air-conditioning and heating system and operated the lights.

But in the decades since Goal Line was built, California’s power grid has dramatically expanded. Many thousands of wind turbines and solar power arrays are now selling energy to the state’s utilities, so old-fashioned gas-fired plants like Goal Line are only powered up on peak-use days a few times a year. In 2015, the Goal Line plant was turned on about 50 percent of the time to meet SDG&E’s needs. But in 2019, it ran for just 150 hours. To keep the Ice-Plex businesses running, Southwest Gen had to regularly purchase gas from SDG&E to run an auxiliary Goal Line boiler to power the Ice-Plex facilities.

For Ice-Plex to ever operate independently of the power plant, it would have cost nearly $2 million to disconnect the two buildings, tie into a new power supply system and upgrade the antiquated rink-chilling equipment. Southwest Gen officials said they had mulled for years how to solve the problem without displacing the hockey league, but the pandemic’s arrival forced them to act because the closure of the rinks and gym in March wiped out all of the project’s skating and gym revenues. Also, the rink-freezing equipment was so old, Ice-Plex was facing the likelihood of a catastrophic failure in the middle of the upcoming hockey season, officials said.

Goal Line’s power sales contract with SDG&E expires in 2025. Until then, Southwest Gen can’t sell the property, so it was seeking a tenant to lease the Ice-Plex property until the contract expired. Because none of the companies who were negotiating for the lease wanted to invest in a property with a such a short-term lease, Southwest Gen gave up on the project. If the contract with SDG&E is not renewed in 2025, Southwest Gen officials said the plant and Ice-Plex could be torn down.

Members of the Jr. Gulls youth hockey league at Ice-Plex in Escondido.
An undated photo of members of the Jr. Gulls youth hockey league at the Ice-Plex center in Escondido. Ice-Plex permanently closed on July 2, 2020.
(Courtesy of Geoff Leibl)

Leibl said the Jr. Gulls program has found a new home, but the transition will be a “pretty big blow” to the hockey program.

Ice-Plex was the only skating facility in San Diego County with two full-size ice rinks. Having the extra space for practice, training and games allowed Jr. Gulls to grow in size to 24 travel teams of boys and girls, ages 8 to 18. Over the years, Leibl said, the program has produced many professional players whose jerseys hung on a “wall of fame” inside Ice-Plex. They include Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel and Genève-Servette HC forward Tyler Moy.

A native of Winnipeg, Leibl said that in his native Canada and the American Northeast, children can practice hockey and skating for many hours a day in the colder months on frozen lakes, rivers and ponds. But in San Diego, the only place to practice year-round is indoors. So, losing two of the county’s seven rinks means hockey players and figure skaters will have to compete for practice time.

The county’s remaining single-rink centers are The Rinks Poway Ice, Icetown Carlsbad, San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa, the ICE rink at Westfield UTC and the Kroc Center Ice rink in Rolando. Leibl said he hopes that the closure of Ice-Plex will encourage one of the region’s other rink operators to build a new rink, or two, somewhere in San Diego County.

“There will be a huge demand for ice, so all we need is someone to build a new facility and I am certain it will be filled,” Leibl said.

Jr. Gulls Wall of Fame at Ice-Plex
Jerseys of professional hockey players who grew up in playing in the Jr. Gulls youth league hang on a wall of fame at the Ice-Plex arena in Escondido. Ice-Plex closed July 2 and the Jr. Gulls league is now relocating to a rink in Poway.
(Courtesy of Geoff Leibl)