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An ice rink appears from nowhere in downtown Olympia

Photo by Ricky Osborne

When rumors circulated that Olympia would install an ice rink on the isthmus once county buildings were demolished, no one could fathom it. But on November 16, a rink opened across from Bayview grocery. It turns out that it’s a temporary, seasonal rink built, installed, equipped and operated by a company called Ice Rink Events with a world-wide business installing these portable rinks.

The rink is the inspiration of the Olympia Parks Department staff who brought it to the City Council this past May. Ice Rink Events would charge $204,000 to provide and install the facility; and $92,000 to operate it.

A memo from Park Department listed the variety of funds to pay Ice Rink Events and cover $67,000 in additional city expenses—a total of 363,000: $125,000 shifted from the park capital budget (delaying some renovation work at Priest Point Park), $67,000 in departmental revenues set aside from extra money earned in fees and charges for other park programs;

C.C. Coates, known in Olympia as a homeless advocate, can be seen on 4th Ave. with her neat sign and goodhumored smile. When she first arrived, Oly Ice staff called the police to have her removed. The police politely informed the Ice staff that C.C. had every right to stand where she was. Oly Ice next approached the Parks Department to make C.C. get rid of the sign—with equally little success. So give C.C. a wave next time you pass—it can be cold out there. Photo by Ricky Osborne

$24,000 in current Park budget capacity, and at least $60,000 from sponsors and advertising businesses. The remaining $92,000 or so would come from fees the skaters paid. If the fees fall short, the city will make up the difference; if more revenue comes in during the 7 weeks, it will be returned to the city.

Council members loved it—a downtown winter amenity the city would offer its citizens The Parks Department materials included an architect’s glowing rendition of a rainbow of skaters inside the rink and a chart listing costs. The vote in favor was unanimous. As Mayor Cheryl Selby said later, this would be a bright spot for a downtown much in need of such a thing.

Still, this awesome winter wonderland seemed to materialize out of thin air. The Olympia Park Plan was created in 2016 with input across the community, to set priorities and guide expenditures. There’s no ice rink nor any hint of a recreational facility on the isthmus in the Park Plan. None of the public comments envisioned even the possibility of an ice rink.
According to one Councilmember, there was in fact no process involved in the decision to approve the staff’s proposal for Ice Rink Events. Even shifting funds from the Parks capital budget to its operating budget required nothing other than this Council vote. One Councilmember said such shifts “happen all the time.” In the end, community input came only from downtown business interests— the Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Downtown Alliance and the Economic Development Council.

No doubt that the ice rink will be fun for families—and an asset to downtown business for the holiday season. But should that be the the only consideration? Why did the Council unquestioningly sign off on this amenity even though it requires a subsidy that amounts to about $30,000 per week of operation? Was the expense of this project evaluated against other uses—including permanent options for the space or pending underfunded park projects? Is the Parks budget so cushiony that there’s no opportunity cost? Maybe it’s time to reduce park impact fees if there’s $200,000 easily available just for fun. Does the Council have a criterion for when their touted public process can be overlooked? The Park staff offered Oly Ice as ready for this winter—but only if the Council didn’t ask for a lot of information beyond the staff’s succinct presentation.

Photo by Ricky Osborne

The city purchased the land that the rink occupies in 2013 for about $3 million. It was bare for some years, and a few people found the lots a safe place to live in their vehicles.

They were swiftly removed when the city cleaned up the property and built a hardscape, maybe with the ice rink in mind.

CC Coates, who was among those moved out last spring, has been inviting passers by to chat about the choice that the skate rink represents: “I’d like to see us using our public resources for public good, not private gain.” She has lived in Olympia for 30 years, working as a commercial carpenter. She takes her citizenship role seriously.

CC Coates’ concern seems valid: this temporary but expensive amenity may be a money-maker for Ice Rink Events and

Photo by Ricky Osborne

boost downtown businesses. As for offering recreation to people in Olympia, Oly Ice’s fees could end up limiting its use mainly to those with means. A 90-minute turn is $10-$12 (including skates). On “cheap” Tuesdays, the charge is $8 for 90 minutes. At a recent City Council meeting, Parks Department Director Paul Simmons announced that they will be giving 120 free passes to organizations that will allow low-income people to skate. That’s $1200-1400 worth. Maybe, since Olympia taxpayers are kicking in a couple hundred thousand dollars, and the goal is to offer something fun for all Olympians, they could double or triple the number of free passes.

It’s important that the city didn’t sign a three-year contract with Ice Events. That means they will have a chance to evaluate whether to go ahead in 2019 for another season. At that point, maybe they will have some questions for the Parks Department.

Ricky Osborne is a photographer and musician. Bethany Weidner is a regular contributor to Works in Progress.

Photo by Ricky Osborne

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