More than just an ice rink

The “Mimi” DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park is a key public resource for families in Southeast Baltimore. It is a rarity – a low-cost public ice rink that’s so accessible that more than 1,800 kids at three neighborhood schools are less than a ten- minute walk from the ice. And now, with the rink at a crossroads in its existence, the city proposes removing it from our diverse neighborhood and relocating it closer to county residents who can pay more for the privilege of ice time.

On a daily basis during skating season, the “Mimi Dome” welcomes kids, families, and adults of all backgrounds. More than 70,000 residents live within a mile and a half of the family skating center, meaning families from throughout East and Southeast Baltimore can easily come together by foot, by bike, and by bus to share time on the ice. Children learning to skate, couples embarrassing themselves on a date, flirting teenagers crisscrossing the rink, parents trying to keep up with kids, adults playing broomball, kids learning hockey – at the Mimi Dome, the ice has room for all of us.

Unfortunately, that time may soon come to an end. During my involvement in the Patterson Park Master Plan process, it became clear that the residents’ goals for the future of the rink did not mesh with the city’s mandates. Running the rink is an expensive proposition, made more so as it ages. The rink cannot continue for long in its present state and is in need of replacement. The mayor’s office decided in recent years that the rink has to generate enough revenue to cover its operating costs without support from the city’s general fund. The city budget office expects our ice rink to function like a private suburban skating facility, prioritizing revenue over public benefit. Meanwhile, in the 2015 budget, the city spent 36% more money on our police than on city schools, recreation, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library combined – yet the ice rink, unlike our parks and pools, must pay for itself.

And so a search has begun for a new location to allow the rink to be “revenue neutral” – a site with abundant parking where suburban residents can stream in by car from points north and east of the city. Access to the ice would be effectively limited by the relative poverty and lack of transportation of many of the rink’s current users. A proposal to move the rink to the Canton waterfront was greeted coolly by residents there. But another potential shift has also been discussed, to an industrial area east of Haven Street – significantly less accessible to neighborhood residents. If such a proposal moves forward, make no mistake as to its implications – the rink’s users would, overnight, become whiter and wealthier, and travel far more than a mile and a half to use a relatively inaccessible “public” facility built using our tax dollars.

As a city, we’ve talked a lot in the last year about how Baltimore’s history of racial segregation, its pervasive economic inequality, and its mind-numbing approach to transit shaped a city and a metro area of haves and have-nots, communities of poverty and communities of means. The General Assembly has recognized the historic pattern of disinvestment regarding children and families as a root cause of our struggles, and is pushing forward legislation to increase mentoring programs, improve city parks, provide college scholarships, extend library hours, expand after school & summer programs, and restore some lost funding to our public schools.

With that context in mind, we have the Mimi Dome–an affordable public ice rink used by residents of all races and circumstances, which is supposed to be relocated to better accommodate wealthier residents from the county. The relocation of the ice rink would be yet another message to young people in our community that their lives don’t matter–that they are an afterthought in our public policy. Instead of moving the rink, we should come together to change the mandate for a revenue-neutral ice rink and identify a location for the rebuilt family skating center in the heart of our community.

* First published in the Baltimore Guide, April 13, 2016 *

More than just an ice rink

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