Residents rally to keep skating at Matthews Park


Fifth grader Skyler West lives near Brackett Park and said in past years he used to skate nearly every day in the winter. Now that the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has closed the Brackett Park, he skates once a week at Matthews Park.

“It’s a big blow to the family,” said Skyler’s father, David West, who had come to the park to drive his son home. “It is not as much fun as it used to be.”

Katie MacDonald, a Brackett Park neighbor with two sons, one in kindergarten and one in third grade, says she worries that the Matthews Park rink could be the next quiet cut. “The problem with Brackett was that no one knew that it was going to close,” she said.

Still other neighbors such as Seward resident Dave Chadbourne are upset that the Matthews Park free skating area changed. It used to have an oval around the hockey rink, now the area it is an “L”-shaped space. “Who ever heard of an ‘L’ shaped skating rink?” he asked. “People skate in ovals to conserve momentum. Lets bring the romance back.”

Go in the warming house and a clipboard sitting on a bench has a petition Chadbourne started, which begins: “SAVE THE ICE RINK AT MATTHEWS PARK!!!” He has 400 signatures, he said, and he is planning a rally at Matthews Park on Sunday, Feb. 17, 1–3 p.m. to collect more signatures and create a citizens group to help plan a more fun and “opulent” park.

Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who represents the Seward neighborhood, said he has received “a ton of e-mails” on the future of Matthews Park ice sheet. Vreeland gives residents both a measure of reassurance and a measure of caution. Matthews Park is a heavily used skating area and there are no plans to close it next year, he said. Still, in his standard e-mail to constituents, Vreeland says: “We are in a financial crisis, so I am reluctant to make any guarantees about next year.”

Park Commissioner and hockey enthusiast Walt Dziedzic cites multiple factors for why the Park Board has trimmed rinks. The city’s demographics and youth habits have changed. Kids aren’t playing hockey as much as they used to. Further, warm winter weather has shortened the skating season, giving the Park Board and residents less return on investment. Further, Park Board’s costs are growing faster than revenues, and it had to make tough choices.

Dziedzic said when he worked at Kenny Park as a college youth; the parks had more than 60 ice sheets. Last year, the Park Board had 28 skating areas and this year it cut five more — Brackett, Harrison, Waite, Shingle Creek and Loring — dropping the number to 23. The rink at Luxton Park in the Prospect Park/East River Road neighborhood was closed in 2006, as well.

In 2007-08, the Park Board will spend $1.5 million on those 23 remaining sheets, or an average of $65,000 each, according to a spokeswoman. That covers installation, maintenance, staffing, utilities and take down. The weather affects costs, as do the characteristics of each site, such as whether the Park Board needs to rent a trailer and the number of hockey/broom ball rinks installed.

Don Siggelkow, general manager for administration and finance, said the Park Board had a $1.7 million budget hole in the 2008 budget. Wages increases were held at 2 percent, but health insurance costs have increased 15 percent and utilities by double digits, he said. The Park Board raised fees and cut programs to balance the budget. A Park Board spokeswoman said eliminating five rinks saved $281,050.

“It is a fact of life that our facilities far exceed our capacity to maintain and operate them,” Siggelkow said. As a further example, he said the Park Board could not afford to maintain the system’s 180 tennis courts. The Park Board would also trim the number of courts to roughly 120, so they could be high quality, well-maintained courts.

Vreeland said city-imposed property tax caps and state aid cuts have affected the money available for park services. “It is great that folks are asking me to keep the rinks open, but the funding for our park system is largely not in my control,” his letter says.

That message worries MacDonald, not just the possible impact on Matthews Park ice but the looming cuts in the broader park system. The cuts could keep happening a little bit each year. “People have to realize these cuts are coming,” she said. “I think people would pay attention and people speak up and figure out a way to fund it if they knew that was coming.”

As for Matthews Park, Center Director Debra DeRosa said the size of the ice sheet increased this year, but it also added a rink that used to be at Brackett. Now Matthews has a hockey rink and a broomball rink, and that changed the space available for general skating, from an oval to an “L”. Matthews has two hockey teams, up from one team last year, she said. It has two fundamental hockey teams, up from none last year. “It has been a good season,” DeRosa said.

The weather has been so cooperative that the Park Board is extending Matthews Park’s skating season from Feb. 18 to Sunday, Feb. 24

Dziedzic said most years the warm weather limits skating to three to five weeks. He would like to follow St. Paul’s lead and create one outdoor rink with underground coolant to keep a skating area solid for four months, a November-February rink. “I can’t get anybody to support me to come up with the kind of money it would take to try one experiment,” he said.