13,000 skaters later . . .

Happy skaters hope downtown ice rink stays open a little longer

Downtown rink’s surprising success might win it 2 more weeks of operation

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 7, 2013 

Dozens of skaters bobbed, tottered and glided in happy circles Sunday afternoon on Columbia’s first downtown portable ice rink.

By Friday, some 12,000 skaters since Nov. 22 had bought tickets to skate, and 1,000 showed up Saturday along with more than 300 Sunday – making more than 13,000 folks who dared a decidedly non-Southern sport.

“That’s 13,000 people who may not have gone to Main Street,” said Jeff Caton, director of the city parks and recreation department, which oversaw City Council’s experiment to put an ice rink on the Columbia Museum plaza on Main Street from late November to January.

Although the rink was slated to close Sunday, the experiment has been so successful that city officials will urge council Tuesday night for a two-week extension. Similar rinks in Greenville and Charlotte have also drawn thousands.

At that time, officials will provide council with facts on how much the portable ice rink, run by a Miami portable ice rink rental company, has cost the city and how much money it has made. An initial contract called for Columbia to pay Magic Ice $158,500 to build, maintain and operate the rink through Sunday.

The seven council members will decide whether to stay open. In the meantime, the rink will be open Monday and Tuesday.

In interviews Sunday, a dozen folks and their children said they loved the rink’s outdoorsy setting, where you skate under an open sky to songs like “Let It Snow” and “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” over a portable loudspeaker.

Other sounds in the air were the scrape-scrape of skates, plenty of laughter and chatter and small crashes as skaters hit the rink wall and grabbed it to keep their balance. There was an occasional “Yow” when a skater went down or avoided a fall. Lights bedecked the trees. Everyone was smiling. A concession of Crepes & Croissants sold hot chocolate and hot crepes.

“This has kind of re-upped my Christmas spirit,” said Jenny Alvarez, 38, as her 16-year-old daughter Savannah Hollis — one of the few skaters obviously at home on the ice — sailed smoothly around the rink.

“This is great — the air, the wind — it brings back memories of my childhood,” said Brian DeRoy, who grew up playing ice hockey in Minnesota. He was there with wife, Jacinda, son Kael, 3, and daughter, Clara, 5.

“I like it the best when you go real fast,” said Aaliyah Irving-Jones, 8, a third-grader at St. Peter’s Elementary School. A few weeks ago, classmates from her school, a block away, came over and skated on the rink. She loved it and was back Sunday. She was there with her mom, Alissa Irving, 40.

Riley Frierson, 14, an eighth-grader up from Orangeburg with a youth group from Orangeburg First Presbyterian Church, said, “It’s fun, and you get to be with your friends.”

Youth group director Sarah Coggins, 34, said, “They don’t skate a whole lot but they’re enjoying it.”

The rink is small as rinks go — about 60 feet by 75 feet, said rink manager Tommy Curtin. The ice is about 6 inches deep and it is kept solid by a grid of pipes filled with freon that run under it. It took about 36 hours of work to put it up in November. So far, there’ve been no serious injuries, though by far the majority of skaters have never skated before.

“Some falls, of course. Young folks — I’ve seen them have some bad falls. They get right up. If I did that, they’d have to write me off,” said Curtin, 71. He keeps about 300 pairs of skates of different sizes that come with the price of an all-day ticket — $10 for adults and $8 for children.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said Sunday he plans to speak Tuesday in favor of having the rink stay.

“The response has been incredible,” Benjamin said. “It’s been an effective way to have some great family-oriented entertainment downtown and great foot traffic on Main Street.”

One response was from Brandy Owens, 10, visiting the rink for her third time with her great-aunt Linda Kelly, 67. “I like the gliding best,” she said.

Has she fallen? “Twice. It hurts.” But then the fourth-grader from Lexington’s Pleasant Hill Elementary smiled broadly. “This is really swell.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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