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Artist's rendering of skating oval with hockey rink

This is an artist's rendering of what supporters of the High Altitude skating oval in Butte say it could become with a hockey rink added and a few other improvements.

A group that has revived activity at the skating oval in Butte wants to put in an outdoor hockey rink with lights and have the county provide a part-time “ice meister” from December through February.

Dave Silk, a physician and former champion speed skater from Butte, said more people are using the High Altitude skating oval off Continental Drive because of skate rentals, concessions, and other steps taken the past three years, and they have come to expect “good ice.”

Live music, a bonfire, and other activities are planned at the oval just north of the Three Bears Alaska store on Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. to open this weekend’s Snöflinga winter festival in Butte. (See schedule in today's TGIF section.)

“With a few investment dollars, Butte can have a truly one-of-a-kind community rink that would be the envy of the region,” Silk, president of the skating oval, wrote in a letter to Butte-Silver Bow commissioners last week.

“However, maintaining outdoor ice, especially a large surface, is quite labor intensive,” the letter said. “Due to continuous snow removal and the elements, there is a huge contrast between maintaining indoor and outdoor ice.”

The group is raising money for the hockey rink and lights, and the council on Wednesday referred the request for a part-time employee to its Public Works Committee. It could take up the issue next week.

Parks Director J.P. Gallagher said Thursday he does not have the personnel or budget to provide a part-time employee to care for the ice, but he told Silk to take his request to commissioners. The council has final say each year over the county’s annual budget, and it can create new positions.

The county provided a part-time employee to tend ice years ago, Gallagher said he was told, but that was when the skating oval was a prominent place for competitive speed skating and training.

“We have less people working for Parks and Rec now (than then), and we have a lot more parks and trails,” Gallagher said. “But I said, ‘Go present this to the council.’ I’m not discouraging him from trying.”

For many years, parks employee Charlie Worley manned a Zamboni ice resurfacing machine and tended the ice during winter months. He retired in 2002.

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Silk said Thursday the oval has become more popular in part because it is free to skate and concessions and skate rentals are offered at times by the nonprofit organization that now oversees the oval.

A “family night” is held each Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. in the winter, with skate rentals available each Tuesday and Thursday beginning at 6:30 p.m., as well as from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, said longtime oval supporter Tina Donovan.

The increase in numbers of late “is huge,” she said.

Students from Butte Central Schools have been bused in to use the oval, and kids from the Silver Bow Montessori School have been coming as well.

Silk said supporters want to install a hockey rink with lights in the middle of the oval. That would cost $18,000 to $20,000, he said, but they hope one trip raffle could bring in $12,000 alone. Those costs do not include boards around the rink.

The oval and adjacent buildings were built in the late 1980s for international speed skating, “but it was never fully developed as a community rink, and that probably should have been done,” Silk said.

It takes more time, equipment, and effort to maintain ice on an outdoor rink, he said, because snow must be cleared after every storm and new water laid down. The oval has a Zamboni, but even with that, it can take up to five hours to get the oval alone ready after snowfalls. It would be a full day if a hockey rink is added.

That is simply beyond what volunteers can provide, he said.

If their goals are reached, he said, it could become a winter equivalent of the planned public pool that is expected to open in the spring of 2018.

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