Why I think the Centennial Commons ice rink is a good idea
After lots of debate the final vote finally happened and Royal Oak will have an ice rink in our downtown park this winter. There are a lot of strong feelings around this, and I want to explain why I championed this idea.
Let's start off with some background. Last year the Winterblast event brought an ice rink to Royal Oak and was placed in the Farmer's Market parking lot.
I can tell you from experience that people loved it. It was different and new. But it was also temporary - and it looked temporary. Being placed in the west parking lot of the Farmer's Market, a massive structure had to be erected to level the rink (the lot is sloped and uneven). Users climbed stairs to get onto the ice. It was just ugly, but only around for three weeks so we could get past that to enjoy time on the ice.
As the ice rink was closing up last season I started to hear an idea about moving the location for 2022-2023 to Centennial Commons. While last winter we had decided to let the concrete cure and not use the park for any activation, that wouldn't be the cast this year. Staff and the event manager, Jon Witz (JWA), starting to have conversations about how a rink could potentially work.
Fast forward to the end of this summer and JWA presents the city with a proposal. He wants to bring in an ice rink and manage it this winter, and in return he gets to use it for Winterblast this year. JWA does not get paid any management fee, nor do they get any of the revenue from the operation. All funds will go to the city to offset the cost of operation. The rink we will be built on ground level, and be well lit at night.
But why would we want to do this?
The park is amazing! It's so amazing that the Michigan Municipal League has recognized it as one of the top four public projects in the state. And so far we have had some great uses of the park - the field of honor during Memorial Day, our first ever Juneteenth celebration, chess club meetings, families enjoying a picnic, or kids running through the water feature. All around, there are many uses for this area that use to be parking lots and old buildings!
All these great uses of the park have one thing in common: they are nice weather activates. We have not programmed the park in the winter, yet. The ice rink will help us activate the 2.2 acres of land in the middle of our downtown during the winter.
This is not the first time an ice rink has been suggested for the park. In fact the park designers, MKSK, drew up a concept of using the grassy area for a rink while the park was being designed.
Looking at this I agree with the design and think it's a great idea to activate this space! The rink will operate November to February, giving us all 4 months of use in a time when the area would typically just be covered in snow.
What about the grass?
One thing that has come up during this process is the grass, and making sure we have use of the park. The sod on flat grass area (shown below in March of this year when it was still dormant from the winter) will be replaced this April. The cost of sod replacement comes from revenue from rink usage. Our contract with JWA stipulates that we will have the use of the grass before Memorial Day, allowing for us to once again have the field of honor this spring. DPS will oversee the restoration to ensure it is to our quality standards and the park is back to the condition it was this summer
Another area of confusion is around where the electrical boxes will be located. We are installing a new transformer near the library,
next to the existing one (very much out of the park and tucked away). Electrical lines will be ran under the park, not disturbing any feature, and end at a handhole in the grass area. Here's a picture of my son standing on a similar hand hole that we came across at Greenfiled Village last weekend. The entire commission has made it very clear that we would not accept a major modification to our park, and tasked staff with coming up with an acceptable solution - and they have.
At the end of the day the commission voted to approve the ice rink this year. We have a one year contract. If the ice rink doesn't work out don't have an obligation to do it again. But I think we will see a tremendous benefit to our residents, that our businesses will enjoy extra revenue in a slow period, and people will want to be in Royal Oak. I think the rink will be so popular that it comes close to being revenue neutral for the city, if not a profit center. And I think it will just be plain old cool to have this in the heart of our downtown. That's why I was willing to vote yes and try this for a year.