Durant, Oklahoma: Skating on Solid Ice

Durant Main Street wasn't going to take any chances on its holiday sales last year. The organization kicked off the holiday shopping season with the opening of a downtown ice-skating rink the first weekend of December. The rink offered families a seasonal attraction and gave people yet another reason to come downtown—especially during the weeks before Christmas.

A young skater models the official Durant, Okla., ice rink t-shirt and logo.

Durant Main Street had two goals in bringing the outdoor rink to Durant: to create a buzz about the downtown on a state-wide and national level and to set up a long-term funding mechanism. Skating on the Square garnered exceptional publicity, and because of our start-up costs, we were hoping to break even during our first year.

Skating on the Square launched the downtown holiday shopping season on Saturday, December 6, 2008, with festivities, a visit from Santa, and skating at Market Square. Skaters came 96 Oklahoma cities, 106 other U.S. cities, and from as far away as Africa, London, Canada, and Mexico—thanks to tourist promotions and holiday visits with family.

One 83-year old man from Pottsboro, Texas, enjoyed gliding around the rink while wearing his childhood skates. A 74-year old woman had been waiting 36 years to get back on the ice. The rink was used by a wedding party after their reception. Many companies, organizations, schools, and birthday parties celebrated on the Square.

Local businesses were ecstatic with the rink. Caroline Hill, owner of The Hollow Tree, noticed that many people seemed to be shopping locally and that being able to drop their kids off at the skating rink while they shopped was a huge draw.

Albert Curtis, owner of Curtis Jewelry, noted that more out-of-town people were visiting his store. "And they [spent money]," he says. "People are wondering what's going on downtown. They came for the rink, the basketball tournament, Roma's [an award-winning restaurant], and shopping. They're noticing how much cleaner and nicer downtown looks."

In the 31 days the rink was open, it attracted 5,779 skaters, an average of 186 skaters a day. According to Ice Rink Events, an installer and operator of seasonal ice skating facilities, Durant brought in more skaters than many large cities. The number of people who showed up for opening day was greater than the numbers the rink vendor had seen in Norfolk, Seattle, and Denver. The vendor had to double the pairs of skates on hand to handle the capacity.

To market this winter diversion, Durant Main Street sought extensive media coverage by writing press releases, contacting reporters with whom the program had built relationships, and sending direct mail to regional schools. Articles ran in various statewide newspapers, and at least two statewide television broadcasts covered the festivities. The rink was also featured on Oklahoma Tourism's Travel Minute.

Throughout December, the TV station, KTEN, had a live web-cam on its website. The rink has also seen attention on the Oklahoman's online event calendar, Facebook, and MySpace as well as on the organization's new website, which was unveiled in December.

The Durant Main Street Board was delighted with the results. "We could never buy the amount of publicity and attention that the rink brought to Downtown Durant," said Board President Cindi Gill. The publicity not only attracted skaters and shoppers, it helped strengthen downtown's image and made people see Durant as the place to be.

The Main Street program worked with the City of Durant to bring the 32-by-60-foot ice-skating rink to Market Square, which holds a special place in the hearts of our older citizens. We wanted to continue that tradition by helping people create new memories there. As part of our streetscape project, we created an event space so we could generate foot traffic.

Durant Main Street's assistant, Carla Dillard, became the rink manager and was on duty every day the rink was open. Besides Dillard, volunteers donated more than 219 hours to keep the rink going. Even more hours were logged during the planning stages, which included designing the logo for the official t-shirt, staff jackets, and other collateral materials; coordinating with the Harmon Foundation to make free banners and signs to promote the rink; working with Dr. Pepper to obtain logistical signs; collaborating with the rural post office to get a special postage cancellation mark that promoted the rink; and developing a promotional postcard, among many other tasks.

Durant Main Street has a long list of partners that helped bring the ice-skating rink to fruition. Cardinal Glass, a company with roots in Minnesota, signed on as the major sponsor, along with a variety of other sponsors that helped fund approximately $40,000 of the costs. Expenses included signs, electricity, renting the rink, assembling a skate hut (a portable building that housed the rink, ticket booth, equipment, and gathering space), paying for staff time, and printing tickets.

Durant Main Street created a sponsorship package that outlined the benefits, which included space on the tickets for ads or coupons and advertisements posted on the ice rink's walls. Main Street also printed a mock-up of a promotional poster that included the logos of the businesses the group was targeting for sponsorships so they could see their company name associated with the rink's marketing.

Durant Main Street staff and volunteers ran the concessions stand, selling food that the organization bought or had donated. The Durant Bowling Center Youth Bowlers and the Girl Scouts also helped out and, in return, got half of the profits for their respective organizations.

Since Durant has never done anything like this before, we learned how to handle the technical details by talking with other people who have set up ice rinks downtown as well as working with Ice Rink Events. Many people think, "Oh, an ice rink, that sounds neat. I'll do it." But, if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Our experience gave us some lessons to share.

Make sure you have enough volunteers to run the rink. You can certainly hire staff to run it (either locally or through the vendor), but it was not feasible for us to do this. And you can maximize profits by using volunteers.

Make sure you can secure sufficient sponsorships to at least break even. We "tested the market" before signing the contract.

Make sure you can do it right. We worked very hard to market our rink. We wanted our posters, commercials, etc., to be first class. We also wanted the experience to be first class. We didn't want to attract scores of people and then disappoint them. And I am confident we succeeded.

Durant's ice rink initiative was so successful that the Oklahoma Main Street Center gave it the 2009 Best of the Four Points Award, which is given only for projects and activities that exemplify the Main Street Four-Point Approach®.

As Linda Barnett, director of the Oklahoma Main Street Center, points out, Durant "used the principles of organization for fund raising and volunteers. They used the principles of design in their promotional materials and location for the rink. They used the principles of promotion to advertise the rink and create events and activities around the project. And, of course, they used the principles of economic restructuring by bringing participants downtown to shop during the peak shopping season of the year."

 Durant Main Street aims to make this an annual event. The city council has approved the ice rink for 2009-2010; and Cardinal Glass, the rink's major sponsor, has already signed on. Overall, we got great publicity from this event and love the way people are now looking at downtown is the place to be. And we created tons of smiles. That is the best part.