PORTLAND – The prolonged summer shutdown of the Portland Ice Arena for a rink reconstruction project will make hundreds of hockey players and figure skaters across southern Maine travel as far as New Hampshire for ice time.

On Thursday, city officials hired a Massachusetts company to replace the 27-year-old rink’s frost-heaved concrete floor and leaking refrigeration system, which lately caused uneven and easily chipped ice. The $611,470 project is expected to start soon and be completed by Labor Day.

In the meantime, skaters are anticipating the challenge of finding alternative ice from mid-June through August. Portland’s arena is usually closed from May 1 until mid-June for regular repairs and maintenance.

“It will be more difficult than usual,” said Meg Kusturin of Gorham, whose daughters Katie, 13, and Cecilia, 10, are dedicated, noncompetitive freestyle skaters. They’re usually on the ice five days a week, for two hours each day, at rinks in Portland, Falmouth and Brunswick.

“We’re often scrambling for ice time from May until mid-June, when the Portland arena is closed,” Kusturin said. “Now, we’ll be scrambling most of the summer. We’ll probably be heading down to the rink in Dover, N.H., a lot more. We’ll do our best to make it work.”

Kusturin said her daughters may do some skating at the University of Southern Maine’s arena in Gorham. By August, the Kusturin girls will be hitting the ice in Biddeford, too.

The Portland arena’s two biggest summer users — the Summer Skating School, which draws about 220 skaters, and the Adult Hockey League, which has about 500 members — have already found ice time in Biddeford and Yarmouth, respectively.

The skating school, directed by Lynda Hathaway, will offer a shortened summer session of recreational, freestyle and hockey-skills lessons at the Biddeford Ice Arena. The arena melted its ice at the end of March and will bring it back a month early, in August, for Hathaway’s skating classes.

“We (arena operators) usually try to help each other out when we run into problems,” said Craig King, general manager of the Biddeford arena, which is owned by the city and operated by the nonprofit York County Arena Association.

Hathaway said the cost of classes in Biddeford will be comparable to the cost of those offered in Portland. King said he hopes that any revenue generated by the lessons will cover the cost of bringing the ice back early.

Portland’s recreational and competitive skaters were notified at the end of March about the rink reconstruction project and the extended closure of the Portland Ice Arena, Hathaway said.

“Summer is our key training time and PIA is a vibrant skating community,” Hathaway said. “The competitive skaters and coaches especially are going to have to travel, scramble and work extra hard to find ice time and keep their edge this summer.”

Travel and other added expenses may drive up costs for some skaters who get displaced by the Portland arena’s closing, Hathaway said. The closure will disrupt hundreds of people who take part in hockey camps, private lessons, public skating times and various leagues each summer.

For the Adult Hockey League, operated by Ace Malette of Gray, games that would have been scheduled in Portland this summer will be held in Yarmouth, at the Travis Roy Ice Arena at North Yarmouth Academy.

The league, which has five divisions and 38 teams, will continue to hold some games at the Family Ice Center in Falmouth.

Malette said the Portland arena’s concrete floor started buckling in December, and differences in ice thickness from 3 to 6 inches could be measured against the rink’s kick plate. Thinner areas chipped more often and had to be patched with snow and water, sometimes delaying games.

By February, arena officials notified Malette and other major users that a rink reconstruction project likely would require them to seek other ice for the summer.

“We found out in plenty of time to look around,” Malette said. “The Portland Ice Arena is an extraordinary community resource and hopefully after this project it will be able to run for another 27 years.”

Malette said he spends about $90,000 a year for ice time at the Portland arena; about one-third of that is for the summer league. He hasn’t secured ice time yet for a high school girls’ summer league that he hosts each summer.

In all, Portland will lose about $77,000 in ice time and arena rental income this summer, said Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance. However, the arena will drop about $15,000 in operating expenses during the rink reconstruction.

Portland taxpayers will have to make up the $62,000 difference, which is included in the proposed 2012-13 budget for the city-owned arena, LaChance said. In recent years, taxpayers have subsidized as much as $143,668 of a nearly $800,000 arena budget.

Problems with the rink’s refrigeration system cropped up in 2007, when it was repaired, LaChance said. Then the rink’s floor started buckling late last year. “We knew we had an issue. We were hoping it wasn’t going to get worse and we’d be able to make it to May,” LaChance said. “We knew we had a significant problem by mid- to late February.”

The city issued a request for proposals to replace the rink’s floor and refrigeration system on March 5; responses were due March 27.

A $611,470 proposal from Preferred Contractors of Pembroke, Mass., was the lowest of three bids. Rink Specialists of Naples bid $686,800 and Rink-Tec International of Little Canada, Minn., bid $625,000, according to city documents.

Preferred Contractors impressed the evaluation committee, including LaChance, with its experience on similar projects throughout New England, including the Kennebec Ice Arena, which is being built in Hallowell, the Alfond Arena at the University of Maine and arenas at Boston College, Boston University, Plymouth State University, Merrimack College and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

City officials plan to pay for the rink reconstruction with an energy-efficiency bond, according to City Manager Mark Rees.

In 2010, the City Council decided to borrow as much as $11 million for capital improvement projects that would increase energy efficiency. Some planned projects were eliminated, leaving money that could be spent elsewhere.

The rink refrigeration system designed by Preferred Contractors includes a chiller, piping, insulation, pumps, tanks, sensors, alarms, a heat exchanger and digital controls, all of which save about 67,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, according to the contractor’s proposal.

When the project is completed, Hathaway won’t miss teaching kids to skate on sloped ice.

“It will be good to be back where we were,” she said, “skating on the best ice around.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]