Thursday, November 24, 2005
Holiday magic—like most magic—can have wonderful and strange results. In North Monterey, the results include a giant fuzzy otter slipping around on a 90-foot-by-60-foot ice rink. In the Main Arena of the Monterey Fairgrounds. In the 70-degree sun of a summer-like November day.
Behind this unreal brand of holiday magic lie some very real motivations, careful planning and serious engineering. The basketball-court-sized rink, which opens on Thanksgiving Day with a grand opening celebration and stays open noon ‘til 9pm daily through New Year’s, is the brainchild of the North Fremont Business District (NFBD). They were looking to create a “community holiday event,” says the district’s Executive Director Lee Pease.
“We had no idea what the event would be,” Pease says. “Many of the holiday events seemed to be disappearing, so we put it in as a goal.”
When Bill Wojtkowski, Monterey’s director of community development, suggested an ice rink during a brainstorming session last January—several years after his vision of putting one in the Custom House Plaza was kiboshed by State Parks’ worries—“all our eyes got big and we just said, ‘Wow,’” Pease recalls.
According to the team that undertook the massive effort of making the holiday ice rink real—including Monterey on Ice spokesman Allan Mello, who’s the one dancing in the otter suit, borrowed from CSU Monterey Bay—it’s generating quite a bit of buzz.
“A lot of people have never had an opportunity to do it before,” Mello says.
“People have reacted with excitement,” Pease admits. “Some people have jumped up and down.”
All the excitement in the world—and even a dose of holiday magic—will not get you a tent to cover an ice rink—especially when a pair of nasty natural disasters triggers a run on them.
“The challenge became sponsorship money—we started seeking sponsorships late in the budget year,” Pease says. “And after hurricane Katrina, all the tents all went to Louisiana and Mississippi.”
Eventually, NFBD’s research and patience paid off, and come last Friday, a team of professionals were securing the tent’s metal girders deep into the ground inside the arena, and using forklifts to help stretch the plastic roof—and its wide, clear skylight—over the imposing metal skeleton. That meant Lorenzo Fuentez of Houston-based Ice Rink Events could start chillin’.
According to NFBD’s Burke Pease (he’s Lee’s husband), the price of the Ice Rink Events’ expertise—which has taken Fuentez to Japan, Australia and Beverly Hills to install rinks—was $87,000. He says the business association is just looking to break even on the quarter-million dollar project.
“There’s no intention to ever make a profit—profits would be charitable giving to the Kinship Center,” Burke Pease says, adding that the foster care-focused nonprofit was selected in large part because its work reaches beyond Monterey to the entire county.
He says the North Fremont Business District is also hoping to lure holiday skaters, “and associate the businesses with good experiences.”
Just days before the grand opening, good experience appears on its way. Fuentez and company have successfully laid stretches of plastic tubing along the bottom of the leveled arena, through which liquids circulate at temps as low as 4 degrees Celsius, freezing the water added around it. Now Mello, Fuentez and company are hustling around the perimeter, attaching bunting around the area alongside the rink, beautifying the box seats where grandmas will sip cocoa and smile down from above while kids’ parties take place, and arranging the rubber-covered staging area that adjoins the 150-200-capacity arena.
But the ice remains untested for skates. It’s an ideal opportunity for guinea pig…er…investigative journalism.
Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice star turned 23-year professional skating coach Shirley Winter-Wiley even lends her assistance. Her name, her coach voice husky after years of shouting, her striking presence and silver hair are enough to make the experience a holiday treat all its own. (She’ll also be on hand volunteer-coaching on occasion over the next 40 days.)
But the opportunity to be the poor man’s Neal Armstrong on skates—in the same arena where countless jazz and blues greats have sung—is enough to make it magical.
Winter-Wiley’s tips resonate in my head as I strap on the hockey-style skates. “Get the right fitting skating boots.” Check. I sweep into action, alone on the ice, moving like Oksana Baiul…with rickets.
“Be sure that your weight is on the back of the blades going forward, don’t catch toe picks,” Winter-Wiley whispers. Got it. I cut little curves in the gray-blue glass.
“Don’t flail your arms around,” I hear her say, so I swing them and gain speed, moving towards a corner of the arena. I find I cannot brake successfully. I brace for impact.
Her voice returns. “If you haven’t skated for a long time, take it easy.”