Making Bumps In The Road As Smooth As Ice

By Gabriel Castillo

When I started at the Belvidere Park District in Illinois a little over four years ago, discussions were already in the works to replace a backyard, makeshift ice rink with a permanent facility that could be easily flooded and frozen in the winter for hockey leagues, ice skating lessons, and Broomball leagues. Although Northern Illinois experiences cold winters, there are some warmer days mixed in. The biggest question I had as a recreation programmer and league administrator was about consistency. How could the district run six weeks of lessons and a hockey league without the guarantee that ice would be available on a weekly basis? If the district was going to be successful in consistent programing, it was a must to put chillers under the concrete.

The Details
With the help of a state grant and a recently passed bond, the project went from a conversation to a full-scale capital project with a full-sized, outdoor, NHL-regulation ice rink, a concrete slab with miles of pipes built in to chill the ice, dasher boards, player benches, and a scoreboard. The facility also has a 2,500-square-foot warming house that includes bathrooms, rentals, and the major equipment to operate an ice rink, such as a Zamboni. Prior to this plan, a separate splash pad had also been in the works, and was incorporated into the project.

Once the funding was secure, the district hit the first icy patch that delayed the project for several weeks—the core samples of the soil came back positive for instability on which to build. After several weeks of additional core samples, we found a suitable place for the project. The second roadblock delayed us for a year as the city needed to approve permits for water retention, compensatory storage, and lighting. If the city would not approve lighting for the facility, the project would not move forward. The final roadblock threatening the project was the loss of a $400,000 Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grant because of state funds being frozen. At this point, it was decided to fund the loss with a new bond approved by the board. 

Once the district moved past these issues, the construction timeline became crucial, as we did not want to lose another year to construction delays. The goal was to open for the winter season in 2015. With a dry summer and an aggressive schedule, we were able to open the facility to the public on December 2, 2015. The highlight of the entire construction process was pouring the slab for the ice rink. It was one continuous pour that had concrete trucks rolling in every 20 minutes. The construction cost was $3.1 million.

With any outdoor facility, weather plays a huge part in how it functions and operates. It’s even more detrimental in an ice rink that requires a consistent temperature just to begin making an ice base. We were told that the ice would be at a max outdoor temperature of 60 degrees. On a cloudy, overcast day, this is true, but the sun and heat can melt the ice enough to make it unsafe to skate. Without a roof on the facility, we are more susceptible to direct sunlight, rain, and leaves getting trapped in the ice as well as heavy snow or sleet. The district ended up purchasing a leaf vacuum to prevent leaves from getting caught in the ice. Logos incorporated in the ice are also more susceptible to sun heating the surface—another valuable lesson learned.

Ice Operations
The company that installed the rink was responsible for making the first sheet of ice before the season opened. Getting a maintenance crew properly trained on ice making is a crucial step in any future success of the facility. Documenting each step of the process is essential. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with excess ice shaving in the melting pit. We are still working out issues due to poor design of the speed that the system can melt and accommodate ice shavings from a Zamboni. Speaking of ice re-surfacers,  enough time should be allowed for proper selection and purchasing. We opted to purchase a used re-surfacer because the difference in price was substantial. Unfortunately, the machine did not run properly and needed to be serviced immediately to continue operations. 

Splash Pad
The splash pad opened in summer 2016—a first for the district. The mechanical operations are shared with the warming house. During the grand opening, we experienced pool-design issues in three areas:

1.       The control buttons that the children press to start the water malfunctioned.
2.       The gates in and out took a beating because we did not anticipate the wear and tear from visitors.
3.       The bathroom door handles needed to be redesigned for access in and out.

Operation Costs
The two biggest costs to operate the facility include electricity for the chillers and staffing. With the first year under our belts and a steep learning curve, we will be working on both of these costs to be more efficient and effective. One of the biggest revenue generators was dasher board ads; we made close to $10,000 in ads the first year. We are looking to double that number. This will help to offset the cost of the chillers, which was approximately $30,000 for the first season. The goal is to break even on the facility between revenues and expenditures.  The community has been very supportive of the project, and we have had a lot of success in our first year. We are proud to provide the community with new winter recreational opportunities and will continue to invest time and funds to keep the facility updated and expand in the future.

Gabriel Castillo, CPRP, MS, is the Recreation Manager/ Marketing Coordinator for the Belvidere Park District in Illinois. Reach him at