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The missing rink: No skating this year in Anchorage's Town Square

Jill Burke
Anchorage residents rang in the new year as usual at Town Square Park -- but this year, ice skating wasn't part of the celebration, apparently due to a breakdown somewhere between the municipality and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. Loren Holmes photo

Every Dec. 31, Anchorage hosts the annual Fire and Ice celebration, a big, chilly party at Town Square Park with fireworks and ice skating performances on the rink at the center of the park. Attendees were also able to use the rink, which in the past has been open most of the season. But as Anchorage welcomed 2014, the New Year's Eve celebration had a different feel to it.

“This year we had fire but less ice,” said Chris Schutte, executive director for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to keep downtown Anchorage vibrant, and which schedules events for the park.

Less ice because the ice rink wasn't there. Who made that decision and why is a matter of dispute. But the rationale for the decision, and its aftereffect, seems to be something on which the partnership and the Anchorage Department of Parks and Recreation can't quite agree.

The rink is a nostalgic hallmark of the wonder of winter, where families venture into the cold to play together and enjoy the season, lured into the shopping districts by the pull of something active and fun. Consider it Anchorage's spin on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

But what the nation's northernmost and westernmost state (also easternmost) has lacked at the downtown patch of ice in its biggest city is a steady stream of visitors.

“The ice rink did not get a lot of use. I don't think many people miss it,” Schutte said.

Yes, people took a spin on the ice when special events were planned, like on New Year's Eve or the occasional Friday date night, when the partnership would pipe music into the park. But the rest of the week, use was infrequent. And then there was the downside to having a large, slippery swath in the middle of the open park.

“Having a big ice skating rink in Town Square Park limits our ability to permit and hold larger events,” said Holly Spoth-Torres, superintendent of the Parks and Recreation Department. “It's hard for people to gather on a slippery surface.”

Also slippery is pinpointing who first decided to nix the rink. The Anchorage Downtown Partnership said the municipality notified it this summer that it wasn't going to install the rink. So it programmed events for the winter anticipating no rink. Then, Schutte said, the municipality came back and said it would install the rink. But the partnership had dedicated money to other types of events and had none for rink activities. The city asked Schutte to put in writing that it didn't have rink funding and did not have any planned nighttime or weekend events for the rink.

“It was very clear that they wanted it to be framed as though it was our decision. Which it was not,” he said.

Yet Spoth-Torres recalls it was the partnership that called things off. It's the city's job to maintain the rink, while the partnership's job is to put it to good use.

“It was our full intention to support the events from the Downtown Partnership the entire time,” Spoth-Torres said.

Either way, few seem to mind the change, and the absence of the rink delighted ice carvers who participated in the Crystal Gallery of Ice, an ice carving competitions in which giant ice sculptures are on display for days afterward. The artists and the ice block delivery crews were thrilled to work on an ice-free surface, Schutte said.

With the space opened up, people can enjoy more of the park, wandering around with greater ease to admire the sights.

There's another upside. The some $10,000 that the municipality has spent in years past to maintain the rink at Town Square Park has gone to expanding ice skating opportunities at other surfaces throughout the city, like Westchester Lagoon and Cheney Lake, Spoth-Torres said. The hot-mopped ice surfaces are bigger, as are the loops that wrap around the free skating areas.

It has made more sense, Spoth-Torres said, to support ice skating locations that draw a lot of people throughout the week than to maintain one that didn't see much action.

It also eases the burden on the city's maintenance crew, which has had to find fixes for drainage and electrical issues at Town-Square Park's antiquated fountain. It has always been possible to work around those issues, she said, but it required extra work to make sure drain off from the ice rink didn't cause problems.

While the rink is gone for the 2013-2014 season, there may be hope of a comeback. In November, Schutte sent the parks and rec department a letter in which he said he'd looked forward to more talk about the rink's future, including perhaps “a different size or configuration that could encourage both ice skating and general use of the Park.”

Information about current places to ice skate in Anchorage can be found at the Parks and Recreation website.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.