George Pfromm II
When The Oregonian first broke a story last fall that the city may plop an ice-skating rink in the middle of Pioneer Square, a few dozen phone calls and emails spilled into the office of City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who heads up the Park & Rec. Bureau. The majority of those correspondences were negative, as the people in question were concerned about losing a valued public space and wasting public money. But as the weeks wore on, the number of complaints waned. In the meantime, plans for a public ice-skating rink have chugged forward.

Though the exact funding sources remain ambiguous, the non-profit that manages Pioneer Courthouse Square continues to confidently announce that the rink will open November 2004. Perhaps the only sticking point now is whether the public wants it or not. On Wednesday, January 15, the city will begin a series of public meetings. It is the only chance residents will have to derail the plan. (Meetings will be held at Pioneer Square at 3-5:30 pm on Wednesday and at 1-3:30 pm on Saturday, January 18.)

Although representatives from Pioneer Square have offered assurances they have comprehensive studies supporting their proposal, they were unable to name a specific city-sponsored ice rink on which they had based their findings. "There were so many; I couldn't point to one," said a representative from Pioneer Square, who claimed that Portland Development Commission surveyed a number of cities that currently host public ice-skating rinks. Those studies were positive, assured the representative.

But what is evident from a brief survey by the Mercury is that the trend is currently moving away from sponsoring such projects. Currently, the city council in Madison, Wisconsin is trying to disentangle itself from two municipal ice rinks, citing them as a drain on the local budget. Mind you, Madison is the home to Erik Heiden, five-time Olympic gold-medal winner for speed skating; and the University of Wisconsin hockey team, 12-time NCAA national champions. It is, in short, an ice-skating town.

Likewise, in San Jose, California, a popular downtown public ice-skating rink was shut down this winter season. Opened in 1995, during the dot-com boom days, the ice-skating rink had gained popularity each year. The closure was not due to a lack of attendance, assured a spokesperson from San Jose Downtown Association, but with the organization that oversaw the rink. "It is a bad time in the economy," explained the spokesperson. "We were not able to get the right level of sponsorship."

Like the proposed Pioneer Square rink, the outdoor rink in San Jose relied on a mix of corporate and public funding. This year San Jose was unable to secure sufficient corporate sponsorship. But some residents, who saw the rink as a public facility, have begun to lobby for the city to step up funding for the rink.

A typical sentiment was expressed by a posting on the San Jose's Downtown Association's website. "The press release issued by the Downtown Association has cited a lack of sponsorship as the reason for the event being canceled," reads the posting, "why then cannot the city dip its hand in the coffers and help what has become an incredibly popular event? The children of this area need and deserve something affordable to do in the holiday season."

A similar sentiment--that the city should endorse and pay for quasi-public projects--has already tripped up our city council. After the private company in charge of managing PGE Park posted million-plus dollar losses, the city has been forced to bolster the ballpark's budget.

Is the ice-skating rink setting us up for another charity case? If so, now seems like bad timing. Currently, for example, local public schools cannot even afford to pay for their spring sports, like tennis and track. The shortfall in the spring sports budget is one-tenth the estimated annual operating budget for the ice rink.

But Pioneer Square President Gregg Goodman says that schools are funded by general funds, whereas the rink will be funded from a property tax. "We're not taking money away from schools," assures Goodman. "Not one penny."