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New Ice Rink Brings People to Downtown Fresno

Downtown Fresno's Fulton Mall has a different look this season, as a new outdoor ice rink is earning rave reviews from residents of all ages. Valley Public Radio's Joe Moore has this report. 

Just a few days before downtown Fresno's newest winter attraction was set to open, Christy Gordon didn't think it would happen. 

"You know on Wednesday it was just so hot. Just walking to the office which is right by here, I thought, 'I don't know how they're going to pull that off.'"

A late fall heat wave brought temperatures into the mid to upper 80's, not exactly ideal weather when you're trying to freeze a man made lake in the middle of the city. 

But after a delay of one day, last Friday morning the weather changed, and temperatures dropped into the 50's,  just the nudge from mother nature that organizers had hoped for,  and downtown Fresno's Fulton Mall turned into an unlikely winter wonderland. 

"I came today and looked out my window and it was the morning, and there were several people out there on the ice, it was just crazy. It was really kind of surreal," says Gordon.

And surreal might be just the right word. Ice skaters young and old filled the rink on Friday evening, which is located right at the door of the landmark Security Bank Building.

It's the latest project from the Downtown Fresno Partnership, a private group of downtown property owners who are attempting to revitalize the area. 

"Over a month ago they started putting up a big metal platform. And then after that they put some pipes on top of the platform. And then just recently they started spraying water on those pipes," says Steve Skibbie, who works as a "downtown ambassador" for the partnership. "There's a big machine that pipes refrigerant through those pipes. And then the water on top freezes. So we had cold weather yesterday so we were able to get ice."

Skibbie is sort of a roving concierge whose job is to help shoppers and visitors find their way around and answer any questions they may have about the neighborhood. Today he has what might be one of the best jobs in Fresno - introducing people to rink, all while on skates himself.

"Nobody believed there was going to be real ice here. That was the big thing. They were like ' there's no way, it's Fresno, there's no way to do this.' [But] there is a way to do this and I think we're doing it well," says Skibbie.

He says the ice rink is part of an effort to bring more people downtown by creating an attraction that isn't found elsewhere in the valley. 

Among those who made it out for the opening day were Christina Gurrero and Teo Martinez. The teenage couple stood near the center of the rink holding hands, not so much out of a romantic mood, but more to keep from falling.

"I actually saw the news this morning and it sounded really fun so I came out here," says Gurrero. 

"It's something I've never done before, and because she wanted to come, so I brought her. Or she brought me," says Martinez. 

Gurrero says it's her second time on stakes, the first time featured lots of spills and falls. 

And the skaters aren't the only ones who hope they don't fall. The ice rink is a major gamble for the partnership.

Earlier this year, the group held a fundraiser in which participants paid for the privilege of rappelling off the top of the Security Bank Building, in part to raise money for the rink.

Sponsorship dollars from community hospital also helped make the event possible. But Elliot Balch, downtown revitalization manager for the city of Fresno, says that no city money is involved in the effort.

"So no city money is going into this ice rink. This not a city project,  but it's definitely consistent [with] and furthers the city's goal of revitalizing downtown Fresno. It's come down to just really hundreds of thousands of dollars that it's taken to put this on coming from the property owners," says Balch.

Several years ago, the owners of properties near the Fulton Mall voted to form something called a PBID, or "property based improvement district."  It's kind of like a homeowners association, expect instead of enforcing rules on what's in someone's driveway, the focus here is marketing downtown and attracting investment. Building owners pay an extra fee on their property tax bill each year, and that money is controlled by a board of property owners. 

Balch says the renaissance downtown is already underway. He points to the new wood fired pizza restaurant that opened last week near the ice rink, the Fresno Brewing Company and several other new businesses as examples of the rebirth.

He says the ice rink is a family friendly destination, which can also help bring shoppers to those businesses. 

"You can't find another outdoor ice rink anywhere in the four county area. So we have something unique here, and that's really important."

Back on the ice, Christy Gordon is skating backwards and turning with ease, while others are working hard just to stay upright. It's pretty clear it's not her first time on the ice.

"I grew up on skates. My brother played hockey and we all hung out at the ice rink. But I haven't been on skates in a very long time, so this is great. It brings me back to my childhood," says Gordon.

She offers this tip to veterans and newcomers alike:

"Don't freak out as you're going down. Because it really hurts a lot worse as you fall once you stiffen up. If you just kind of go with it and glide it's a lot easier," says Gordon.

And Gordon says this first day of skating on the new ice rink downtown won't be her last.

"Oh no, I have several lunches and breaks throughout the winter season so I'm sure I'll be out here! It's great exercise and it's fun."

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.