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By Kris Kearney
For more than half a century, making an ice rink in the city of St. Joseph was as easy as turning a hose on the grass in Whittlesey Park. Then, children and adults of all ages would pull out their skates and wait anxiously for the water to freeze. Unfortunately, winters along the lake can be unpredictable and skaters could go weeks—sometimes entire winters—without getting on the ice if the weather didn’t cooperate.
With few winter activities available in the area, resident demand for a permanent ice rink started to rise. A citizen survey conducted in 1988 revealed that residents felt the construction of an ice rink should be one of the city’s top priorities. Over the next few years, there was also a rapid increase in the formation of youth and adult ice hockey leagues. Without a local rink, leagues travelled for an hour or more to rent practice ice time in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, or South Bend. It was that demand that drove the city commission to include a new NHL-sized rink as a top priority when it drafted its five-year recreational goals in 1996. Ultimately, the city wanted to give residents a venue for fun activities during cold weather and draw tourists to the city during the long winter months.
In early 2001, a generous donation for the project from local philanthropists John and Dede Howard “started the ball rolling.” With the city‘s pledge to provide the remaining monies, Abonmarche Consultants, Inc. was contracted to design and oversee construction of the new facility. We took an empty field that saw little use near the center of town, and designed and built a partially enclosed ice rink. Original plans for the 85 x 200 foot rink called for a concrete refrigerated floor system, a metal roof structure to protect the ice from the weather, and a Plexiglas dasher board enclosure, which would allow the rink to be utilized by hockey leagues. The facility would also include a viewing area, warming hut with a wood burning fireplace, seating areas, restrooms, and a vending area. The combination of the refrigerated flooring and roof would make the rink operable five months out of the year, and the concrete flooring would allow for rollerblading during the summer months.
On a sweltering August day in 2001, groundbreaking took place and construction began. As construction proceeded, the city continued to provide any additional funding needed, determined to build a first-class community facility. A private foundation grant was made toward the project, allowing the purchase of a used Zamboni and additional skates for rental. The local hockey association donated a professional ice hockey scoreboard.
On January 19, 2002, the John and Dede Howard Ice Arena opened its doors to immediate success. At the end of the first season, over 2,000 people per week had passed through the doors, and the facility took in approximately $35,000 a month in revenue, far surpassing original estimates. As the rink continued to increase in popularity, it was evident that expansion was needed. In 2003, Abonmarche was contracted to design additional seating, four locker rooms and a party/concession area, all funded entirely through private donations.
Today, the rink is filling a number of voids. Casual skaters of all ages looking for a family oriented activity have one more option to consider during the long winter. Figure skating classes are held, and virtually all remaining time is rented by ice hockey leagues of all ages for both practice and tournaments. With the popularity of hockey, teams from as far south as Indianapolis, and as far north as Ludington, are frequent competitive visitors.
In recent years, the city has worked hard to add other winter attractions to entice tourists to the area. The Luminary Festival at Christmas time, Light up the Bluff—a winter light display, and the Magical Ice Carving Festival, all add to the attraction of visiting this small city during the blustery months of winter. With a great place to skate, quaint downtown shopping, excellent eateries, and plenty of “small town hospitality,” St. Joseph is setting a standard for increased tourism during the wintry months in Michigan.
Kris Kearney is the marketing director for Abonmarche Consultants, Inc. She can be reached at 269-927-2295, x158 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.