In Coon Rapids, parks worker Joe Tart sprayed a layer of ice for a hockey rink in Delta Park. It was the first day for making ice in the open and hockey rinks at Coon Rapids parks.
KYNDELL HARKNESS, Star Tribune
Outdoor ice rinks slipping away
- Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
- Star Tribune
- December 9, 2009 - 7:13 AM
Denny Loving describes a cherished view he got flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport: Outdoor skating rinks "on ponds and sloughs and outdoor parks about every tenth of a mile."
Loving would notice such an asset. He's president of the Pond Hockey North America Championship.
But across the metro area, some of those rinks will go dark this year, victims of city budget cuts that have trickled down to neighborhood parks.
No single agency or organization specifically tracks changes to outdoor ice rinks in Minnesota cities, but the examples are numerous:
•Lakeville is not flooding rinks in five parks that traditionally have had them, leaving five others open. Estimated savings are as much as $7,000, including maintenance and utilities.
•Coon Rapids will operate lights and warming houses at two sites on weekends only; three other rinks will be maintained without warming houses or lights. Two other rinks will remain open with full facilities every day. The city maintained 17 rinks until about four years ago. This year's cutbacks could save as much as $18,000.
•Burnsville is closing 13 of its free outdoor skating sites -- half of those it usually maintains. Savings are difficult to estimate because the changes are due to the loss of park maintenance staff and expanded snowplowing responsibilities for city personnel after a private plowing contract was terminated.
Most city officials said budget cuts are fueling such changes. Cities are entering another year of unpredictable state aid and reimbursements, and with small or nonexistent revenue increases due to slow -- or stalled -- development.
"Unfortunately, we're not considered a core service," said Lakeville Parks and Recreation Director Steve Michaud. "Definitely, it will affect the quality of life for those interested in that particular activity. What do you do in the winter in Minnesota?"
Cities that are cutting back say they have tried to ensure that remaining facilities are geographically dispersed -- or concentrated where demand is greatest.
Civic pride meets reality
In Burnsville, the city's 26 skating facilities were a source of pride. "We had kind of an exceptional program when you compare the number of sites we had to our neighbors," said Terry Schultz, Burnsville's director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. "It was nice to be able to have a rink within a half-mile or mile of everybody. Now, we're saying a rink within a mile or two of everybody."
In a year when cities are hunting for ways to cut costs, every expense must be justified. Officials said they tried to focus cuts on the least-used rinks.
Blaine is closing four neighborhood facilities and figures some won't be missed that much.
"When maintenance comes in to flood and there are no skate marks, that says 'what are we wasting our time for here?' " said Park and Recreation Director Jim Kappelhoff. "We're finding that kids are just not going to the skating rinks any longer in the wintertime. They've become homebound with other activities, such as computers, cell phones and video games."
Beth Lewis, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, said she wasn't surprised to hear of falling outdoor rink attendance.
"We've had a culture shift in terms of kids doing more organized activities versus just going out and playing in the backyard and going to the local skating rink," she said.
A few indoor rink managers said they have maintained strong organized and free-skate programs. But Michael Sheggeby, president of the Minnesota Ice Arena Managers' Association, hesitated to correlate indoor attendance numbers to a decline in outdoor rink usage.
Still, indoor rinks do operate without the unpredictability of weather, whether it's mushy ice or biting winds, said Craig Flor, manager at Ridder and Mariucci arenas at the University of Minnesota. Others noted that several recent warm years have made for horrible ice conditions or short seasons.
All is not bleak
But free-play, pickup hockey and skating races under the stars aren't history everywhere. In some neighborhoods, an aging population can explain the absence of skaters. In other communities, outdoor rinks are still in their heyday.
In Blaine, some outdoor multi-rink facilities see as many as 200 skaters a night during the week. And a park like Happy Acres that's in the middle of a neighborhood of young families is well-used.
Minneapolis isn't making any changes to its outdoor ice program after closing five facilities two years ago. Bloomington was able to soften its cuts thanks to a group of volunteers trained to maintain the ice and staff warming houses on school holidays and weekends. St. Paul credits its volunteers for helping keep all of its 20 facilities open; volunteers do the flooding, grooming and staffing at several of its rinks.
The outdoor experience is important, said Lewis, because the lack of structure allows kids to be creative, and to be their own referees and problem-solvers.
"When you round up kids from the neighborhood, kids see that skating is a fun activity," she said. "It's a creative activity, playing games and learning to love to be physically active."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409
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