Although she smiled and laughed as she left the Darex Family Ice Rink, 9-year-old Isbel Szilagyi of Seattle shouted, "I think I'm the worst ice skater in the whole world."

Szilagyi joined about 1,000 others who donned ice skates at Ashland's seasonal downtown rink this Thanksgiving weekend. But her opportunities for practice on the ice may be waning. Despite the popularity of the fixture, city officials fear that this year could be the last for the aging facility.

Don Robertson, Ashland parks and recreation director, said the rink opened for business on Nov. 17, which was a major accomplishment after an oak tree collapsed under the weight of a heavy snowfall in February, crushing the roof canopy.

"Every year we have a hard time getting the rink up and running because of the age of the facility," Robertson said. "But this year was extremely challenging because the tree damaged the tubes and coils. We had to rebuild one of the mats that are above the chiller coils. The mat is four feet long and runs the entire length of the rink. It's also very hard on the rink to unroll and then roll up the mats every season. Plus, the coils are plastic tubes that constantly crack. I hate to say it; but this might be the last year we'll be able to open the rink."

Public, private funds

Robertson will submit a grant this winter so the city can purchase a canopy and permanent embedded mats and coils, which he says would cost approximately $300,000. The grant would only cover about half of those costs. He said his department received $44,000 from the insurance when the tree crushed the roof, and he has received a $5,000 commitment from the Ashland Parks Foundation and a $50,000 commitment from the parks department.

"We'll be looking to the community for additional funding," he said. "We're real excited to have the rink up and running this year and we're keeping our fingers crossed. It's a great resource and amenity for the town and I'd hate to lose it."

Pat Fisher, an evening and weekend manager who has worked at the rink for the past three years, said he thinks people would be very upset if the rink didn't open next season.

"This is a safe event for the community," he said. "It gives the kids something to do at night. When there isn't a fun place for kids to go, that's when you tend to see bathrooms getting tagged and stuff like that."

Annette Pampush, who traveled to Ashland with her daughter for the Thanksgiving holiday from Tillamook, said, "The main reason we came here was to skate. If they don't reopen the rink, we'll miss it terribly."

Bow Seltzer of Ashland initiated the successful fundraising campaign that brought in the Darex rink in 1996. "I was able to raise $250,000 that first year because so many people supported it. After 11 years, it's kind of a fixture now. I'd hate to see it go. I'm sure the community will get behind this to make sure we don't lose the rink."

Seltzer said he'd like to see an Ashland rink with a more permanent structure like the Bill Collier Community Ice Arena in Klamath Falls.

"It's a multi-use, outdoor facility. I think something like that would better serve the various Ashland groups who use the facility now," he said.

The Ashland High School hockey team would be directly impacted by the rink's closure. Chris Bonelli, who has coached the team for the past three years, said it would be a huge loss for the community as well as his team if the rink didn't reopen next year.

His 23-student team practices every Monday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. They also practice two days a week at the Medford ice rink, "But we only get one hour of practice time in Medford, and we have to share it with the Medford teams. Losing that practice time in Ashland would really hurt our program," said Bonelli. "I really hope the community steps up to make sure we don't lose the rink."

Under the stars

Despite the rink's uncertain future, most of the skaters enjoyed skating without a roof overhead. Fisher, the rink's evening and weekend manager, said that overall the comments have been very positive regarding the roof being gone. "Probably because we've had some pretty decent weather," he said. "I think attendance will go down if it starts raining."

The rink hasn't operated without a roof since its first year of operation in 1996. Robertson said not having the roof will probably do more harm than good. "If it's a warm night with lots of stars, skating will be beautiful. If it's cold and rainy, I don't think too many people will attend."

This is the second time 9-year-old Chloe Pampush of Tillamook has skated at the Darex rink. "Without the roof, the ice seems a lot rougher. And there's a bunch of leaves on the ice that's making skating a lot harder," she said, demonstrating a couple of shaky twirls. "But it's still a lot of fun."

Fisher said the rink gets rough when they have a heavy flow of people. "We try to get the Zamboni out on the ice every two and a half to three hours. But when we have about a 100 people out on the ice, I think they'd be more upset if we asked them to leave the rink so we could smooth the ice out."

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