Lots of snags have led to ice rink delay


The ice skating rink located at Bo Diddley Community Plaza in downtown Gainesville sits empty Friday, December 7, 2012.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 7:50 p.m.

It was Monday night, and after two delays, it was the third night that downtown Gainesville's ice skating rink was supposed to open. But the rink still had no ice.

Facts

When it's ready

The ice rink will open at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza, at 111 E. University Ave., and close on Jan. 13. The Plaza Ice Palace will be open weekdays from 4-10 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission will be free for three days once the rink is open. Otherwise, admission will be $10 for one hour of skating with skate rental and $7 for those who bring their own ice skates. If you forget socks, they will be available for purchase.

Nine-year-old Dylan Theriault, wearing a Boston Bruins jersey, and his mother, Ana, walked up to the Bo Diddley Community Plaza stage. Dylan bounced around smiling, disappointed by the lack of ice, but still excited. His mother frowned and wondered what was causing the holdup.

Meanwhile, Mike Howard, a balding man with gray stubble on his face, was above the stage, helping his crew set up a 25-foot inflatable Santa Claus.

As Dylan and his mom were about to leave, Howard came down a ladder and called out to them.

“Hey, tell him to try on a pair of skates,” Howard said to the mother, gesturing to the 180 pairs lined up on the stage behind him. “He can at least figure out what size he needs.”

He helped Dylan into a pair, and the boy waddled around the stage, grinning, the skates clacking.

You can take those home, Howard told Dylan.

Dylan and Ana were two of about a dozen people who approached Howard that night, wondering when the rink would open. Every time someone asked, his face fell.

He hoped Thursday, he said, but he was hesitant to say for sure.

Howard is the owner of Midwest Display Inc., a company he started in 1994 that specializes in holiday light displays. For about 10 years, he has built ice rinks in cities, military bases and theme parks around the country.

Howard, 59, and the handful of men building the downtown rink with him for the last two weeks have had one problem after another.

First they pushed back the opening a week. Then another three days. Then the downtown plaza's sign read simply “open soon.”

Most of the problems stem from trying to modify, repair and replace materials from his standard 40- by 80-foot rink, Howard said, to fit the grassy area in front of the plaza's stage, which is about 50- by 50-foot.

“He's had to build this one basically from scratch to fit this space,” said Alice Jones, the rink's manager, which is much harder than installing a pre-manufactured rink.

They had to improvise some parts, building new sidewalls and cutting to fit the 50,000 feet of tubing, which will be filled with a coolant to freeze the ice. Then some pipes cracked during a pressure test, causing blowouts.

“In hindsight, we probably should have built up the area and put in a full-size rink,” Howard said. “It was much more difficult than we assumed.”

Daniel Gallagher, 25, an employee at The Lunchbox restaurant in the southwest corner of the plaza, said, “It seems like the construction has been very sporadic.”

That might be because Howard's crew spent a few days making unexpected drives around the state to pick up replacements for broken and failing parts. They also spent several days waiting on outside contractors to bring equipment.

Howard said he left his usual crew, who would be fast and efficient after years of building rinks, at his manufacturing plant in Pensacola for other projects. The guys working with him now have never built an ice rink before, which has slowed the process.

And while his company has set up as many as 17 rinks in past years, the Gainesville rink is the only one Howard built this year due to a relocation of the company's operations and personal health issues.

For most of this week, Howard has been waiting on a contractor from Atlanta to install the 125-ton chiller that runs the freezing system. He called off the contractor a couple times after having equipment failures, and then the contractor got tied up with a refrigeration job for a hospital.

Howard said he will have invested about $90,000 after paying for labor, supplies, security and insurance and giving 10 percent of the rink's revenue to the city. Because of all the problems and delays, Howard said, he knows he won't make any profit.

The city has been patient as one obstacle after another unfolded.

“Of course we're disappointed that it's not up and running,” David Ballard, the city's events coordinator, said on Saturday. “He's doing what he can to get it open. I'm sure he feels as bad as anybody.”

Ballard said that tempering the city's frustration is that “the city really wanted to have an ice rink. The city is very happy that he's making that effort.”

And with an eye on the bigger picture, the city hopes the rink is successful and becomes an annual event, Ballard said.

The city has stopped giving a set opening date, Ballard said, “because there's so many things that have to fall into place just right.”

Howard says he has no plans to give up.

“We committed to do the project, and we'll complete the project,” he said. “It's important that you do that in anything you do. If you're committed to something, follow through with it.”

Almost every night for the last two weeks, Howard has slept in the cab of his truck parked in the Bo Diddley plaza downtown.

In that time, he said he has gotten to know the community of homeless and other people who hang out there, and he has made it his mission to help them in any way he can.

“I think that they see the struggles,” he said, “and maybe in a way it helps them see somebody else that's also struggling at this point but is not going to quit until it's completed.”

Howard said he has hired a handful of people he met in the plaza – one joined his construction crew, one will paint murals on the rink's sidewalls and a few others act as security.

At one point, Howard gave one man in the plaza 100 sets of paper eyeglasses that turn streetlights into rainbows. Howard asked the man to hand them out to others at the plaza.

That was more of a “feel-good thing,” said Dusty Gallagher, 49, a homeless advocate and volunteer coordinator who said he's gotten to know Howard the last two weeks.

Howard said his plans for the rink include holiday music, lighting and movies projected onto the tent. He brought in a food vendor, Sweet Southern Comfort, which has been parked in the northwest corner of the plaza since Wednesday.

And as promised after the second delay, the rink will still offer three days of free skating.

The manager he hired, Alice Jones, who has experience directing programs at ice rinks, didn't think the free days were a good idea, Howard said, but he thinks of the free days as a gift to the city.

Jones, 48, said she hired 17 people, mainly college students, to staff the rink.

A figure skating coach for 33 years, Jones originally planned a learn-to-skate course through local schools. Jones said she will probably have to shorten the course from five weeks to four because of the delays.

Downtown businesses are anxious for the rink to open and bring in more customers.

The Lunchbox has been trying to plan when to bring in more employees, Daniel Gallagher said.

“We're kind of in limbo,” he said.

So are the families, couples and friends who want to skate.

“We're just ready because I'm sure we'll be out here a couple times,” said Brica Hill, 36, a post office employee who will bring her daughter Bri'yonna, 12, to skate.

“The plaza is normally such a great place for events. It's a shame to see it tied up,” said Jason Haeseler, an engineer walking by Friday afternoon with his 2-year-old daughter on his shoulders.

Haeseler, 37, said he was disappointed the rink wasn't up and running and was eager to see it open so he can bring his daughter, Genevieve, to skate.

“She asked for snow for Christmas,” he said.

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