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For at least one more season, skaters can opt for one of two outdoor rinks in Hoffman Park. Debbie Griffin photos

Rinks on the brink of becoming extinct?

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At a time when citizens most need inexpensive entertainment, budget cuts threaten the wellbeing of Hoffman Park's outdoor ice-skating rinks. As the financial allotment for parks and recreation shrinks, the challenge to maintain the rinks grows.

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"It was looking like the rinks were gonna close," said City Parks and Recreation Coordinator Cindi Danke last week.

But her department, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Public Works and interested community members collectively decided to try and keep the rinks open at least another year.

Danke said Public Works Director Lanny Gleason is helping monitor and track the resources used this season.

A combination of factors threatens to close the two outdoor ice-skating rinks at Hoffman Park.

Before the hockey association built its arena, it played a big role in maintaining the outdoor ice. For example: Using a Zamboni machine to smooth out the rough spots and producing volunteers willing to shovel and plow the rinks.

The city used to pay a part-time attendant to monitor the rinks' usage, help with upkeep and turn the lights on and off.

Historically the small, round shelter adjacent to the rinks served as a warming house where people could thaw their toes, take a break or put on and take off their skates. When the city could no longer maintain that luxury, it became a rental facility available for family reunions, skate parties and other events.

Now the structure serves as the Parks and Recreation Department's temporary home until the new City Hall is finished.

Advocates would like to see both rinks remain open, but fewer people visit when they're not maintained properly. Danke said she'd love to see people come out there and play more broomball and that the two rinks would be perfect for skating parties and other such gatherings.

She said, "Everybody wants to look at cheap things for people to do."

She points out that Hoffman Park offers double the free fun with skating and sledding within the same park. Still, maintaining viable skating surfaces is tricky.

The ground must freeze before the rinks can be properly prepared. Danke said ideally the city likes to have them ready before kids get out of school for Christmas break.

The water can't be poured if snow is coming. If it falls before the water freezes, that makes for a bad skating surface. Flooding the rinks presents a technical dilemma since that requires someone who knows their way around a fire hydrant and hose.

Danke said the flooding process also requires two people since the slippery ice can be dangerous and since skaters must stay off the rinks until the water freezes.

After the surfaces are prepared, they must be plowed after a snowfall. The rinks rank close to the bottom of the city's list of plowing and maintenance priorities, understandably since Public Works must first clear streets and other public areas.

The city is also trying to cut down on worker overtime, including plow drivers.

Danke said the hockey rink proves especially difficult because of the boards that surround it. The snow must first be plowed off the ice, then scooped up and over the wall. Plowing the open rink proves a bit easier since the snow can be pushed off its edges.

With melting and usage comes the need for smoothing out the rough spots in the ice. While some people use a clothes iron to smooth out their backyard rinks, that won't work for the city.

"We don't have a Zamboni," laughs Danke.

Outdoor lights surround the rinks, but River Falls can't afford to leave them on and can't risk assigning that responsibility to citizens. The recreation coordinator said city staff is investigating the possibility of affixing timers to the lights that could be programmed.

"Then it's just a continuous cycle (to maintain the ices)," she said.

Danke said plenty of people still come to Hoffman and use both rinks. She thinks this winter's weather has probably been the best for skating in 10 years.

She typically sees people come in the afternoon when the weather is above zero and/or sunny. She wonders how many more people may not even realize the rinks are available and free.

"We thought we'd give it a try again this year, because being out here, we can monitor it," Danke said.

With Parks and Recreation making its home in the old warming house, staff there can see just how much usage the rinks get. She said even when they're not on duty, they can tell when people have been there because of tracks in the snow.

While she concedes that the rinks and their upkeep could use all the help they can get, it gets complicated with volunteers because of the fire-hose usage and needing to coordinate plowing with the city.

Danke and other advocates are hopeful that they can breathe life into the rinks this winter and figure out how to keep them around for future skating seasons.

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