End of hockey at Congdon Park?Congdon Park rink supporters are torn on the meaning of this week’s Duluth School Board decision to approve a school site plan that reduces rink space, with some seeing it as an end to the longtime hockey program housed there and others not ready to give up.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Congdon Park rink supporters are torn on the meaning of this week’s Duluth School Board decision to approve a school site plan that reduces rink space, with some seeing it as an end to the longtime hockey program housed there and others not ready to give up.
The board, in approving school and site renovations as part of the district’s long-range facilities plan, chose a design that reduces the number of rinks from three to two, removes the warming shack and shrinks a planned parking lot. In doing so, it allows for handicap accessibility and a parent drop-off space for the adjacent school, which it hasn’t had. The board’s vote allows for a retaining wall that would make space for a third rink, but only if enough money exists after everything else included in the school project is covered.
The vote means a new shack must be built in another spot, and the Congdon Park program, if it remains, must adjust to less space.
Unless supporters rally to raise money — with estimates ranging between $300,000 and $500,000 — for a new warming shack, boards, turf and lights, the 80-year-old hockey program would probably end.
“At some point as an organization we have to decide when it’s time to move on. … I think we are there,” said David Meierhoff, Congdon Park rink director. “It’s too much of an obstacle to overcome.”
Program leaders have said they need three rinks to meet the demand for both hockey and community use.
While the three ice rinks and recreation building also cater to pleasure skaters and Congdon Park classes, it is hockey families who for years have flooded the rinks, pushed snow and run the warming shack and Zamboni. As players are redistributed next year while Congdon Park Elementary is renovated, there is concern that even if the money is raised, many won’t return. “We can only convince people to hang on for so long,” said Sara Vallie, an organizer of Save the Rinks, which has worked to preserve the space. “There are so many variables … maybe there will be enough money for a retaining wall, maybe we can fundraise enough. And then to ask them to play at a different location for a year in the chance that we pull this off.”
About 75 kids are registered with Congdon Park hockey, part of the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association. But thousands of others use the rinks; and the fields during other seasons, Meierhoff said.
“The overwhelming amount of support we received (from nearly 2,000 petition signers) came from people who used these rinks not has hockey players, but as … families who used this facility as a recreational and social space,” he said.
The skating rinks have a long history, and many have talked about how the space has helped create a close community and friendships among casual users and hockey families.
Duluth resident Jim Claypool’s three boys played hockey on the rinks in the 1950s.
“What really impressed me about them then and still does, is it’s such a headquarters for a neighborhood rink,” he said. “There were rinks out in Lester Park, up in Longview. For the kids in the Congdon area to be able to have and play at a rink that represented their area … I think it was pretty important.”
Long-time Duluth hockey supporter Bob Fryberger said the loss of the program would hurt Duluth hockey in general.
“There are fewer kids participating because of the cost, among other things,” he said. “There is no question this is going to have an impact. Congdon Park has a strong tradition of providing players to the upper levels … and the rink is solidly supported by parents and the neighborhood.”
The Congdon Park hockey board plans to meet Sunday to talk about its future. Meierhoff said there will be talk of auctioning off assets and finding a way to donate the money to other hockey programs. After that, Vallie said she would like a larger meeting with players’ families and community members to gauge interest in raising money.
While it makes sense that the onus of fundraising has fallen on the hockey community, Vallie said, “if we cannot raise this money to build a shack, then the hockey program will fold.”
And if that happens, she said, the two rinks won’t have anyone to maintain them unless someone else steps in.
Mayor Don Ness said the city wouldn’t take sole responsibility for maintaining Congdon rinks, “but we’d be willing to work in partnership with the school and the neighborhood as we do in other areas of the city.”
Ness, who had before offered $100,000 in parks money to support the Congdon rinks, later amended that to “strongly supporting” rinks at the new Ordean East Middle School site, saying he’d have a hard time offering support to the Congdon site because of its limitations.
On Thursday, he said the city is still open to discussion about Congdon rink support, but “for 2012, we have a full slate of higher priority projects in our parks, primarily maintenance and upgrades of existing fields, courts and playground equipment. That’s our focus.”
The hockey group understands if the city doesn’t contribute, Meierhoff said.
“We never asked anyone to give us public funding to build something already in existence,” he said. “We’ve asked to preserve what’s there.”
With the approved plan, the district has finally made a financially responsible choice after several months of poor communication, said Mike Piette, who lives across from the rinks and rejected the district’s offer to buy his home for a former iteration of the site plan.
“This is a common-sense solution that’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I commend Mr. Gronseth for recognizing the limits of the budget and attempting to rein in the costs.”
Rink supporters have been sensitive to the district’s budget, Meierhoff said, and when it was learned preservation wasn’t possible, they offered to raise money to replace the shack and offered a new design for parking across the street, leaving the rinks intact. That plan would cost an additional $1 million, the district said.
Working with the new plan, provided money is raised, would be hard, Meierhoff said. Two rinks split between a hockey program and pleasure users would be a scheduling struggle, as balancing issues already exist with three.
But Fryberger, whose grandkids play hockey at Congdon Park, said a two-rink situation is workable.
“There are lots of programs with less than that,” he said. “Adjustments need to be made. It’s premature to sound the death knell for Congdon hockey. There is too much tradition, too many supporters. … We’re not going to quit on this thing yet.”