See more of the story

Record-breaking warmth this winter melted Minneapolis' outdoor ice rink traditions — and cost the park system $750,000 for just a single week of skate-worthy ice.

For almost two months, park workers got up before dawn to flood the 45 ice rinks in parks throughout Minneapolis, only to see their work melt away in the daytime. A proper freeze finally arrived near the end of January.

Lyndale Farmstead in south Minneapolis opened on Jan. 17, followed by every other rink within the next three days. But the cold didn't last. Almost as soon as skaters laced up, the ice started to melt again. Within a week, all rinks were slush.

The cost for eight days of outdoor skating, hockey and broomball: $750,187, or about $94,000 per day. Now, some parks leaders are pondering the future of the city's much-loved outdoor rink system in a warming climate.

"I think it's a wake up call," said Park Commissioner Becky Alper. "If you look at the long-range forecasts, I think we can expect more variability in temperatures ... Let's plan for that so we're better serving the public with the resources that we have."

Alper, an ice skater, has asked the board's recreation committee to gather data including how much the system spends on ice rinks annually for how many days of use, what planning is done for unseasonable weather and whether climate experts are ever consulted.

This winter's record-breaking temperatures — caused by the combination of climate change and El Niño — shouldn't be the benchmark for any kind of year-to-year prediction, said assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay. But the state is steadily warming, with climate patterns morphing to resemble Iowa's. In recent years, winter overnight lows have seen the biggest upswing, which is particularly detrimental to ice-building.

"Over time, we've had definitely warmer winters. We've seen that through the years, the shortening of the coldest part of the season," Boulay said. "In a cost-benefit ratio, what would be the tipping point of do you do outdoor rinks or not? That's up to the bean counters to figure out."

Cities can use refrigerated rinks, like the Roseville Skating Center, to hedge their bets on outdoor ice in an uncertain climate, Boulay said. But they'll have to decide if it's worth the cost.

Alper and Commissioner Billy Menz have also suggested that park staff consider the feasibility of incorporating refrigerated rinks into new park plans.

"I've been really pushing the board that if we're going to act boldly for climate change, we also have to act boldly in the area of recreation, and this is a place where we could do that," said Menz. "Because without acting boldly we're going to have no ice to skate on."

Refrigerated rinks are part of the long-range plans of Columbia Park in Northeast Minneapolis and North Commons Park in north Minneapolis, which is slated to receive a $35 million makeover in the next few years. Billed as the biggest neighborhood park construction project in the Park Board's history and already running over budget, North Commons' schematics include a placeholder for an unfunded refrigerated rink. Northside skaters would need to raise private funds to make that a reality.

Park staff estimate a refrigerated rink at North Commons would cost $6 million to $8 million, including a canopy to provide ice-extending shade.

New Directions Youth Ministry, a nonprofit that runs a low-cost hockey and figure skating program at North Commons, hopes to build it for less. The organization is getting ready to launch a capital campaign that describes bringing a refrigerated rink to north Minneapolis as an equity issue: kids skating in defiance of the racial stereotypes and financial barriers that have traditionally kept low-income people of color out of hockey.

Kids whose families can afford to participate in club sports and rent indoor ice typically skate five to six days a week, but lower-income kids can develop the same skills on an outdoor rink for free, said Dale Hulme, executive director of New Directions. This winter's late freeze and early ice-out meant the hockey program's 70 kids got to hit the rink at North Commons just twice. They made up some of their missed park league games indoors at Parade Ice Gardens, but with no practice in between, it was virtually impossible to compete.

If they could raise the money for an outdoor refrigerated rink at North Commons, it would help level the playing field between Northside players and their more privileged peers when the weather doesn't cooperate, said Chris Williams, North Commons hockey coach. He used to live in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood of southwest Detroit, where an artificially cooled rink was a neighborhood centerpiece. He'd love to see that at North Commons.

"We played a game on Saturday, and our goalie had played like two other times before. ... If he'd had the practices, he would have been that much farther along," Williams said. "So our mission is to provide this low-cost opportunity to get involved in hockey because hockey is just one of these things, a Minnesota thing ... and I think it's important for the kids to have this."

The Minneapolis Park Board's first maintained outdoor rink was Loring Pond in 1884. It has been providing free skating for 140 years.