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Rink Rally
Longer skating season?

Winthrop—population 400—has a million-dollar dream sitting in limbo, waiting for the state legislature to pass a budget. If that dream comes true, within three years the town should be hosting regional hockey tournaments on a refrigerated ice rink that has expanded changing room and locker facilities and new bathrooms serving skiers and adjacent trail users.

photoSkaters enjoy a crisp winter day at the rink with Mt. Gardner in the background. Photo by Marc Robertson.

The legislature seems poised to pass a budget before June 30. Meanwhile, town officials and ice-rink supporters are patiently awaiting word on a $497,000 grant from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office that’s tucked into the state budget.

“It’s a good limbo,” said Marc Robertson, vice president of the non-profit Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink board (WISR). “There’s lots of energy and we’re going in the right direction.”

Robertson was the project manager who oversaw construction of the area’s first permanent ice rink, which opened in 2007 as part of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association operation. The rink was built with the help of a $375,000 RCO matching grant that, among other things, helped the town acquire the site.

Asked why refrigeration wasn’t included in the first phase of rink construction, Rocklynn Culp, Winthrop town planner, said, “It was mainly a cost issue. We intended to refrigerate, but the grant was smaller and the cost of refrigeration much higher.”

The original concept was for a rink that would be useable year around [for activities other than skating], she explained, adding that there was discussion about what type of surface would allow that. In addition, an ice-rink consultant suggested a roof over the rink, Culp said. But that idea was dropped because it would be “hard to make it aesthetically pleasing or cost effective.”

photoAn aerial view of the existing Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink with the Methow River Lodge and Cabins in the background and the Susie Stephens trail winding through the foreground. Photo by Jill Calvert from the helicopter of John O’Keefe, DDS

Given resources and what was realistic, she said it was decided, “We’ll build the rink and see what we’ve got and go forward from there.”

Now, she said, “like any project that requires engineering, [the WISR board] has put in enough research to provide pretty realistic ballpark figures” for the Phase 2 grant. More than half the estimated cost in the RCO grant-request documents is for refrigeration.

The WISR board also has a healthy start on the pot of money and in-kind donations it will need to match the grant for Phase 2 of ice rink development – a pot recently enhanced by a $100,000 bequest from the late David “Red” McComb. “We don’t want to spend the money until we know if the [RCO] grant comes through,” Robertson told Grist.

Kurt Meacham, rink general manager, calls refrigeration “a game changer.” Until he can guarantee ice, rink operation is weather-dependent. “From an economic standpoint, if the ice rink had refrigeration and was able to host [hockey] tournaments it would, for the first time ever, bring in people [specifically for skating], said Meacham.

“We would have people coming from B.C., Idaho and Oregon…coming here for hockey tournaments,” he continued. “Now you have people coming for skiing and saying, ‘Let’s go try ice skating’ because it sounds like fun. I think that could completely flip. People would come for skating and say, ‘Let’s go try this skiing’.”

The University of Washington hockey coach is interested in bringing a hockey version of the football Apple Cup with rival Washington State University to the Winthrop rink, Meacham said. “If we had guaranteed ice, we’d absolutely be able to do that.”

The Winthrop rink, which is used year around, has been named one of the 10 best outdoor skating rinks in the West by Sunset Magazine. Yet Jill Calvert, WISR board president, told Grist, “We’re basically hanging by an edge right now. The only way we can succeed long term is with refrigeration.”

The WISR board took over rink operation from the MVSTA three seasons ago and has operated in the black the past two winters, Calvert said. The rink has 5,000 user visits per year, she said. But it costs $60,000 a year to operate and 85 percent of the rink’s income is generated during the holiday season, she added.

photoJill Calvert, president of the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink board, and an avid hockey player. Photo by Karen West

Calvert said hockey tournaments would draw people who are likely to come for two or three nights, bring their families, rent rooms and eat out. “It will be a huge [economic] boost for the whole community,” she said, because tournaments would be scheduled during non-holiday weeks.

The Path Forward

If the grant is approved, the board will need to hire an ice-rink refrigeration expert to write up the specifications that will go out to bid, Meacham explained.

The town’s first steps would be to do soil tests and to have the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation examine the site before issuing a building permit, according to Culp.

Calvert said the expectation is for a design that fits the existing rink footprint and uses the existing lighting. “We need to tear the whole thing up and put tubes in [to refrigerate a slab],” she said.

The RCO grant application states that a 1,200 sq. ft. building is planned at the east end of the rink to house restrooms and changing areas. That may turn out to be an extension of the present building, according to board members.

Culp said the town’s long-term vision is to get the town trailhead parking lot paved and attractively landscaped so the 3.8-acre area the town owns is a sports/recreation hub with public bathrooms serving the ice rink, MVSTA’s trailhead and the adjacent Susie Stephens Trail.

Meacham sees no reason a refrigerated ice rink can’t continue to be used for year-round activities. Roller skating and roller hockey are among the possibilities, he said.

The town, which owns the land and rink facilities, has an agreement with WISR to manage and operate it, Culp said. The RCO grant money would come to the town. “Although we own the property and we’re the official applicant for the grant, we’re solid partners…but WISR gets the credit,” Culp said. “They are the force behind it.”

She added that she submitted the Winthrop RiverWalk and ice rink projects to the North Central Washington Economic Development District (NCW EDD) for its annual projects of “regional significance” designation.

The ice rink was the only project selected from Okanogan County, according to Jennifer Korfiatis, NCW EDD administrator. She told Grist the designation is effective until June 2014 and it means that WISR will receive a letter of support, help finding funding sources and will have access to grant-writing expertise.

From Backyard to Big Time

photoAn early photograph of the ice rink created every winter for many years in the Cub Creek yard of Anne Joslin Webster. Photo courtesy of Cathy Upper

Ice skating on the valley’s frozen rivers, lakes, ponds and flooded spaces has been a popular winter activity for generations. But one backyard rink figures more prominently than most in the long drive to bring a permanent, refrigerated ice rink to Winthrop. A number of today’s rink supporters learned to skate or play hockey in the 1980s and early 1990s in the late Anne Joslin Webster’s backyard, according to Calvert.

Cathy Upper, Joslin Webster’s daughter, told Grist that her mother was a figure skater who could do sit spins and camel spins. Although born in Baltimore, she went to summer ice-skating camps in Sun Valley, Idaho, and once was an extra in a Sonja Henie movie. Henie, a Norwegian skater, won the first of her three Olympic gold medals in 1928 at age 15 and later became a Hollywood movie star. She inspired several generations of young girls to become skaters much as Olga Korbet inspired a gymnastics craze decades later.

Joslin Webster was devoted to ice skating when she moved to Cub Creek in the early 1970s. “She’d go out there in her truck and drive back and forth to pack it down,” said Upper, explaining how the back lawn was converted into a rink. Once packed, an oval space Upper estimated to be about 50 feet long was repeatedly flooded to build up ice. Side boards and hockey nets were added later, as were a couple of tall ladders festooned with lights to illuminate the ice, Upper explained.

After then-widowed Joslin married Ed Webster, the pair built a rink at his place on Red Dog Road up the East Chewuch. “Remember the [record-breaking] winter of ’96 with all that snow? They couldn’t get out of the house for four days, but they kept the ice rink clear,” Upper said.

Calvert recalls that the ice rink moved to The Barn parking lot in Winthrop in the late ’90s. A large tarp was laid down and a fire hose used to flood the tarp. Once the base ice formed, volunteers sprayed on water to build up layers. “There would be two people out there [spraying] at midnight and four in the morning,” she added. It was a locals’ hockey-playing scene.

Calvert said she didn’t take up hockey until moving here in ’93. “I was about 40 years old. It’s the most fun game I’ve ever played.”

A Rink is Born

Joslin Webster, who died in 2011 at age 89, lived to see the dream of a permanent Winthrop ice rink realized, and it was she who bought the facility’s Zamboni ice-cleaning machine.

photoIn 2007, Marc Robertson initiated construction of the ice rink by taking down a fence. More than 350 people contributed to the effort either in cash or in-kind. Photo courtesy of Marc Robertson

Calvert said the permanent ice rink was the result of some “big horse trading” among the property owners, including Gary and Louise Belsby, owners of Spring Creek Ranch, and Dolly and Richard Stahl, who own Methow River Lodge and Cabins. Janice Dickinson, of Winthrop Physical Therapy, “helped a lot,” Calvert added, as did town planner Culp.

“That collaboration with all the different people is what made it work,” Calvert said. “People donated huge amounts of time and skills [for the in-kind grant match] but we still needed cash,” Calvert recalled. She said Robertson called her and asked her to raise $120,000.

“I’d never done anything like that in my life,” she recalled. “There was nothing there,” she said of the site. “It was a field, a dirt parking lot, weeds and a hay field.”

But with the help of a fund-raising team that was formed, Calvert said, “one hundred and fifty two people donated cash…We raised $205,000.” Another 200 people made in-kind contributions worth $178,000, she added.

Robertson managed the project, which got underway in April 2007 and was finished that December. Winthrop now had an 85’ x 200’ ice rink and a 3,000 sq. ft. building.

A Transition

By early 2010 MVSTA wanted out of the ice-rink business, Calvert said, so rink supporters formed a whole new board with James DeSalvo, then MVSTA trail manager, as president. “We were handed a business with no operation manual,” Calvert said of the early challenges. “We lost money the first year.”

photoElizabeth Joslin, left, and Shelby Lee, right, skate on the backyard rink up Cub Creek. Photo courtesy of Cathy Upper

Meacham, who had business experience, was hired mid-season. “I give Kurt a lot of credit,” Calvert said. “We gathered data. We were undercharging… We had a lot of hours when nobody was at the rink. We figured out what was working.” That summer the rink operation was restructured and has since run in the black.

Calvert is looking forward to the next challenge—a community fund drive that will kick off as soon as WISR gets word on the RCO grant. There is a possible matching-fund donor in the wings, which means every dollar contributed by community members will be matched up to $100,000, she said.

“In the end, we have to have an endowment fund,” Calvert added. “We need to have reserve funds because that’s the only way to be fiscally responsible [with the public’s money].”

As for her personal commitment, it hasn’t waned, Calvert said. When she goes to the rink and sees “three, even four generations skating together, a grandmother with her grandchildren…Seeing that really spins my crank.”


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