There’s a grass-roots effort heating up about a very cool idea: getting a quaint, low-key local ice skating rink set up in Wilton for the winter.
Admittedly, Kevin Connell, one of the people behind the effort, is a tried-and-true New Englander. While he’s only lived in Wilton since February, he relocated to Connecticut from New Hampshire about 10 years ago. He says his affection for the idea dates back to the local ice rink that used to pop up every winter in the town where he grew up.
“The fire department would flood the little league baseball field. They’d come by every couple of nights to resurface it. The town even purchased a used snow machine, like the kind you have a ski resorts, to blast snow out, so you’d have this nice skating-slash-sledding area. It was just a lot of fun, it was inexpensive and the town had a lot of fun with it. I remember going there quite a lot,” Connell recalls.
Curiously, the idea sprang up via the Wilton Tag Sale Facebook page.
“Someone was selling a backyard ice rink for $20. A bunch of people jokingly tried to outbid one another. Then someone suggested we buy one for the town and just stick it somewhere. So I threw together a quick email for everybody to start to toss around some ideas. I put up a page. It just kind of snowballed from there. There was no real intention to do this but it has kind of turned into one, and I’ve been having fun trying to manage it and learn my way around the town, negotiate the politics and learn the procedure for trying to get this done,” Connell says.
Mentioning the politics leads to an interesting bit of related history. About a dozen or so years back there was a previous effort to get a town ice arena. Several residents campaigned to build it where Wilton Commons and Trackside Teen Center is now located, even raising significant funds for it. However, there was a sizable opposition from people concerned about the ongoing cost to the town and to taxpayers. Following a dramatic fight over the idea, it was defeated.
Skating is often referenced in Wilton; there’s neighborhood skating on Kent Pond and other private ponds around town; most recently a reader wrote a Letter to the Editor comparing the Comstock Community Center renovation project with the idea of a town pool or rink.
But supporters of the current project hope their idea of a grass-roots supported public ice rink with a New England charm will be a better fit with the “semi-rural village” profile Wilton likes to project. They cite the idea’s growing following: Connell’s Public Skating for Wilton CT Facebook page has collected more than 335 ‘likes’.
“The response has been outstanding. We have people making great suggestions. I’m amazed a page that came together in just 5 minutes has gotten picked up, it’s wonderful,” he says.
Connell says the idea has quintessential Wilton and New England charm.
“There’s a classic New England feel to this idea. Wilton tries to maintain that small-town presence, it’s almost how it differentiates itself from, say, Westport. If you want to maintain that feel of the small town, why not offer that quaint feeling, someplace you can gather. To me, New England has always been about winter. You think about winter, horses and snow, all that nostalgia–ice skating, sledding, hot chocolate, all those kinds of things,” he says.
If Connell could make his dream a reality, he’d locate it at Schenck’s Island, right in the middle of town. “I’d put up artificial ice starting in late October, early November to get it ready for Thanksgiving; decorate it, make it really nice and have people use it probably through late February.”
He knows that it gets more complicated as someone has to maintain it, and make sure it’s shoveled when it snows. “A winter sport requires a lot more upkeep, and finding people to do that–whether that’s Parks & Rec or volunteers–is going to be the biggest challenge.”
Connell says he has checked out one potential complication–insurance–but feels that’s a non-issue. “The town is already insured for any recreational activity that occurs on town-owned park or playground land. So there would be no additional insurance costs.”
The ideas do vary, from buying one of the plastic rinks to flood it and leave it, to purchasing artificial ice that could go through spring; they’re discussing whether they’d need to charge admission, and possibly doing a large Christmas light display.
“It runs the gamut. We’re trying to figure out in which direction we should go, how we’re going to do it, and then how we can afford it,” Connell says. “Right now there’s no funding–it’s a wonderful idea and we all want to do it, but finding out who will pay for it and maintain it seem to be the tricky aspects.”
He adds that there’s one member of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen who is pitching in his expertise–Ted Hoffstatter, an ice hockey player himself. Connell says Hoffstatter has been given those most involved some valued advice on navigating the Parks and Recreation department and Town Hall.
“But Ted makes a valid point: you want stick within the budget as it exists today. It’s easy to have services when you’re adding money, but not so easy when you try to not,” he says.
Connell is hopeful that initial conversations he’s started with Parks and Rec will eventually blossom into something more concrete. In the meantime he’s hopeful that anyone interested in getting involved and helping the effort will reach out, especially anyone with practical experience setting up 501 c 3 non-profit organizations, as well as construction experience (depending on what direction the effort takes).
“I’ve been amazed at how many people want to help, that’s the big takeaway,” he says. “It’s been a fun thing to do on the back of a napkin, but as long as people are willing to show interest I’m happy to put forth effort and help manage and construct this whole process. But really right now, we just want as many people to know about it as possible. Once we know what the town wants we’ll know how to go about it.”