The City of Columbia will not operate an ice skating rink this year, ending — at least for now — what had become a holiday tradition that attracted thousands of people, but never came close to being profitable.
City manager Teresa Wilson confirmed to Free Times that the city's ice skating rink is not coming back this holiday season. She says the city couldn't find a good location for it this year. For many years, the rink — then known as Main Street Ice — was located on Boyd Plaza along Main Street, outside the Columbia Museum of Art.
However, last year, for the 2018-19 holiday season, the rink was forced to move, as Boyd Plaza was in the midst of a robust remodel, which has since been completed. As such, the attraction — rebranded Holiday Ice — was moved to the parking lot at Columbiana Centre, the mall on Harbison Boulevard. It operated there from Thanksgiving weekend 2018 until early January.
Multiple sources, including Wilson and City Councilman Howard Duvall, said the ice skating attraction simply didn't click at the mall the same way it did when it was located in the city center. Free Times has sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the city for 2018-19 attendance and expenses at the rink.
"What we learned, particularly last year, trying to do it away from the city center, it just doesn't work as well," Wilson says. "All the new development and things going on downtown is a good thing. Obviously the original location [at Boyd Plaza] is no longer available. So, we are going to have to keep searching until we find another spot that works.
"But we have come to the conclusion that it works best in the city center. With the activity downtown during the holidays, it just seems to work best there."
Mayor Steve Benjamin says he thinks the city's ice rink could make a comeback in years down the road.
"I do hope to bring Main Street Ice back in the future," the third-term mayor says. "It has been an incredibly unique and affordable family-friendly experience that has attracted so many back to the heart of the city. The newly renovated Boyd Plaza is amazing, though, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Wilson says, along with attendance being lower at the Harbison location last year, there were other aspects that made it a bit more difficult for the city.
"It's not just the numbers," Wilson says. "It was a great location. We wanted to to do something that was on the perimeter, but still in the city limits, so that was a great spot. But, it also required a lot more infrastructure and safety protocols we had to invest in out there. Also, working with the mall — and they were great to work with — the traffic patterns out there were different. There were just a lot of other things we had to consider."
The city has operated an ice rink each holiday season since 2012, and it has consistently been a money-losing proposition. Collectively over the first six seasons (not counting the 2018-19 season, for which Free Times has requested numbers) the ice skating venture was more than $350,000 in the red.
At the same time, it typically drew thousands of people into downtown each Christmas season. For example, during the 2017-18 season, the last on Main Street, more than 11,000 people ice skated.
Wilson concedes the rink wasn't a moneymaker, but says it also was a quality-of-life feature that added to the holiday aesthetic downtown. It's part of what leads her to say ice skating could return in future years.
"I think we will do it again once we find a location that is conducive to doing it, just for the quality of life it brings," the city manager says. "The fun and the atmosphere, first and foremost, of having that wonderful amenity during the holidays. But we also want to be conscious of cost and doing it at a location where, while it might not make money ... we can still be conscious of our bottom line and make it happen."