There may be a tree in the Grand Hotel but what about an ice skating rink in the downtown square?
That’s easier sung than done in Mississippi, where the record high on December 25th is 78°.
There hasn’t been a place to ice skate in the Greater Jackson area since The Park on Lakeland Drive closed its doors in 2008 just as the recession was starting to entrench itself in the Magnolia State.
This holiday season however, parents and children can lace up their ice skates again, if only temporarily.
Baptist Health Systems and Florida-based Magic Ice USA announced in October the construction of a 7,200 square foot temporary ice skating rink in Madison that would be the centerpiece of the area’s first “Christmas On Ice” celebration.
The rink opened last week at the corner of Highway 463 and Highland Colony Parkway and will remain in operation until January 6.
Ridgeland videographer Jeff Tanner was active in the adult hockey leagues at the Park before its closure. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., he learned to ice skate when he was five-years-old and calls it “one of the most strenuous physical activities you can do.”
Tanner said after the rink closed, the closest ice in Mississippi was at the civic center in Southaven and it was only open for one month every winter. Tanner was determined for his son to learn how to ice skate and would drive to Dallas twice a year to enjoy their ice skating rinks.
Flowood resident Laurie Warrington isn’t an avid ice skater, but said she is glad the frigid activity is closer to home. “I’ve visited rinks in Memphis, on the Mississippi Coast, and in New York City in the past,” Warrington said. “It is a wonderful addition to the community for families to enjoy.”
“Christmas on Ice” will include thousands of lights and decorations, a “birth of Christ” story trail and a 125-foot long ice slide.
Warrington said the slide will give Mississippians a little taste of snow in communities where its not uncommon to celebrate the holidays in shorts and flip flops.
Jackson resident Katie Conway misses ice skating at The Park and said “Christmas On Ice” will be a good way to cool off and start one more family-friendly holiday tradition in the Metro Jackson area.
Bringing a winter wonderland to milder climates is a team effort. Crews install insulation and liners before rolling out a huge mat that serves as the rink’s foundation. The mat is then filled with ice-making fluid and water and is left to freeze. Frozen sand is used to seal the rink against its railings.
“Its real ice,” said Magic Ice USA spokesman Brad Holland. He said specialized chilling equipment maintains the rink’s frigid temperatures. Large air conditioning units that are used in the summer to cool NASCAR and PGA tents are brought in and turned down to five degrees to chill the rink. “They are able to keep the ice rink cold even in relatively warm weather,” Holland said.
Madison is the first Mississippi city to do business with Magic Ice USA. Ice skating and ice slides are a novelty in the South and an event like “Christmas on Ice” is less about the skating and more about being outside and having a wholesome, healthy social event with a holiday theme.
It’s also good for local retailers hoping to attract people to their businesses.
Rick Johnson, director of the Old Monterey Business Association in Monterey, Calif, grew up in Minnesota and was thrilled when Magic Ice USA built a temporary rink in his town. “We’re a surfing place,” Johnson said. “The average yearly temperature is 65 degrees. Occasionally you’ll see snow on the mountains.”
The ice rink turned out to be a hit for Monterey. “The last rink was built between the downtown and the town wharf,” Johnson said, adding that it gave people a chance to experience the area and hopefully plan return trips throughout the year.
Greenville, South Carolina parks and recreation business administrator Kevin Stiens agrees on the economic benefits of the temporary ice rink. The city built its rink on a small Rockefeller Center-like green space across from its Courtyard Marriot and Stiens said more than 18,000 tickets were sold in the first weeks.
“We didn’t get any snow last year,” Stiens said. “There were a lot of people skating in shorts and short sleeves and we had a few issues with the ice starting to get wet.” The rink was able to stay open and Stiens said the nearby cities of Columbia and Spartanburg have signed similar agreements for their own temporary rinks this year.
“I had nothing but positive feedback from merchants and restaurants,” Stiens said. It was another accomplishment for the city of 58,000 that has made strides in recent years to revitalize a lagging downtown. ”We want people to come skate for a bit then go eat and shop,” Stiens said, adding that the rink was a huge “date night” destination for the city’s young professional residents.
Closer to home, Magic Ice USA has had several equally successful partnerships in communities in Florida and Alabama in years past.
The Wharf is a popular convention and entertainment destination in Orange Beach, Ala. with more than 150 shops and restaurants. During the winter, the nearby beach can be a “ghost town” according to Wharf spokesman Jonathan Gray. His city’s decision to install a temporary rink brought potential shoppers to an area trying to rebound from the recession.
Back at home the excitement is palpable.
Liz Lancaster with Mangia Bene Restaurant Group in Jackson found out about the Madison ice rink on Facebook and says it will truly put the area in the holiday spirit. “From childhood, we are taught that winter is associated with snow and ice skating, she said. “That just isn’t true here in the South.” Lancaster said her group’s associated restaurants Sal & Mookie’s and Broad Street Bakery are helping promote the event online and will be giving away gift cards at many of the planned events.
Jeff Tanner can’t wait to get his skates back on. He said he hopes the temporary ice rink will have a great turnout and maybe spark discussions of a full-time rink once local businesses see the investment opportunities.
“(The Park) was kept very busy between the youth and adult hockey leagues,” he said. “We were there every night. I know that an ice rink can survive. It’s a wonderful sport. Watching it on TV just doesn’t do it justice.”