For the first time in years, ice skating returned to the Inner Harbor in 2014. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
With a glide around by Olympic skater Kimmie Meissner and more of a wall-hugging lap by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a new outdoor ice rink opened in downtown Baltimore on Friday, bringing back a popular attraction after more than 10 years.
"It's great to have a rink back in Baltimore," said Meissner, 25, a world and national figure skating champion who lives in Bel Air. "I love the city, I love the rink, so I'm so excited to be here."
The rink, on McKeldin Square at Pratt and Light streets, gleamed under the winter sky, attracting downtown workers and, later in the day, kids who welcomed the arrival of Santa Claus for his annual holiday residence in a little house across the street at Harborplace.
While many cities have seasonal outdoor rinks — the one at New York's Rockefeller Center being perhaps the most iconic — Baltimore hasn't had one at the Inner Harbor since 2002. That was the last year a rink at Rash Field operated, drawing some 30,000 to 45,000 skaters every winter. The waterfront hasn't had a skating venue since the one that operated at Harbor Point on the east side shut down in 2005.
For Meissner, who competed in the 2006 Olympics and will tour nationally this winter with Stars on Ice, the rink brought back memories of performing in her first show, which took place on the rink at Rash Field.
It took several years to work out the logistics and bring skating back downtown, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership, which has arranged for the rink to operate on McKeldin Square for the next five winters.
"Ice skating makes people happy," Schwartz told a crowd that gathered Friday morning for the opening. "You cannot be on a rink and be grumpy."
Schwartz said the rink is part of the group's holiday campaign, "It's a Waterfront Life," which includes the Santa house, the Christmas Village patterned after Germany's Christkindl markets and other promotions designed to draw more people to the harbor during the winter season.
"We like to create affordable, fun activities for locals here at Baltimore's Inner Harbor," said Schwartz of the partnership, created in 2005 for business and attractions to join with the city in promoting and advocating for the waterfront.
Schwartz, who previously estimated that it would cost $450,000 to build and run the rink, said the partnership hired a company, Rink Management Services to operate it. They will share any profits, Schwartz said, but she doesn't expect to break even in the first year. Tickets cost $9 for adults and $7 for children, and skate rentals are $3.
On Friday morning, Rawlings Blake gamely laced on a pair of ice skates for a wobbly tour of the 68-foot-by-80-foot rink wedged into the triangular median. She touted the rink as a family-friendly, cheap-date kind of attraction.
"I love Baltimore in the wintertime," the mayor said, remembering how her mother used to take her as a child to a rink on the west side. "I think the icing on the cupcake is this ice skating rink."
With Meissner shadowing her, she made her way around the rink.
"It's great," the mayor said a bit breathlessly as she exited the ice. "I just need a few more lessons, and then I'll be ready to rock and roll."
Meissner said it was too cold for her to break out any of her signature axel jumps or camel spins. Instead, she watched as two skaters with the Next Ice Age, the troupe she had performed with on Rash Field, sailed and spun around the rink. The troupe just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
"It's such a great location for the city," said Nathan Birch, a Next Ice Age founder.
"On Rash Field, there was no real walk-by traffic," said Tim Murphy, his co-founder. "They finally found the right place."
After the opening program — shortened from its planned 90 minutes because of frigid temperatures in the 30s — the gates opened to the public.
A group of co-workers from The Cordish Cos.,a Baltimore development firm based down the street, were among the first to test the new rink, and imagined how it might be a good place to escape for a 30-minute break from their jobs.
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"The ankles are good, but my legs were burning," she said. "I'm having a blast."
For Tom Noonan, president of the Visit Baltimore promotions group, the opening of the rink continues a "banner year" for tourism in the city, with events like the Star-Spangled Spectacular and the Orioles postseason run making it a destination for many.
"Our tourism season needs to be all year long," Noonan said, "and we can't let it stop during the winter months."