Tucked into the corner of a Westminster park is a fenced-in area that city officials like to call "the largest wading pool in Carroll County."
Trouble is, it's supposed to be an ice rink. That's why Westminster officials are looking to replicate one of Baltimore's popular ice rinks -- which rely on expensive refrigeration equipment, instead of the weather -- or get out of the skating business.
"When you depend on Mother Nature for ice, it's very difficult in this area," said Thomas B. Beyard, city planning and public works director. "When it's open, people enjoy it. But on the other hand, if we get a week's usage, it's on the high side. We get one sunny day, and that's it -- it's melted."
Yesterday, for instance, the tarpaulin-covered surface in the Dutterer Family Park was full of puddles and dimpled with slush.
Beyard and some of the city's recreation staff recently visited three Baltimore rinks to check out the possibilities for Westminster's ice-skating future.
They visited the Inner Harbor Ice Rink at Rash Field, the Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park and the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena in Northeast Baltimore -- all of which cost plenty more than Dutterer Family Park's portable rink.
The Westminster rink opened in 1995 after a local business owner, willing to finance a rink, asked for a place where her grandson could ice skate.
"There are only two requirements: flat ground and water," Ronald J. Schroers, city recreation supervisor, said when Westminster was considering building the rink. "Well, we've got that."
The woman wrote the city a check for $7,000, and Westminster placed its first outdoor rink on a baseball diamond in City Park near the Westminster Family Center in the old Longwell Armory.
But the city was on thin ice from the start.
The ball field was not as level as it looked. A 2-foot difference in elevation made it difficult to keep the ice frozen, leaving 4 inches of water at one end of the rink and 2 feet of water at the other.
The rink never opened in 1996 because it was in the process of being moved to a new location at the Dutterer park, which was not completed. In 1997, its first year at the Dutterer park, the rink melted into a pool of watery slush and closed early. And last year, the skating season ended less than two months after it began.
Beyard said the rink has been skateable for only about five days this year and probably will not open again without a prolonged stretch of cold weather. Parks staff need at least three consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures to ready the rink.
The city charges $2 admission to cover operating expenses.
"I think we're doing the best we can do under the circumstances," Beyard said. "It's something we added to our programs that we didn't have five years ago. But at some point, we want to see whether what we're doing is the best, [or] whether we could do better."
Dean Mack, acting manager of the Patterson Park skating center, said the group was interested in his facility, asking questions and taking snapshots. The park's arena opened in 1968 as an outdoor rink and was converted in the mid-1990s into an enclosed arena, modeled after a popular Philadelphia rink, and named for DiPietro, a longtime Baltimore councilman.
The rink's fiberglass dome "looks like a big, glowing egg in the middle of the park at night," Mack said. Using a compressor system to keep the ice cold, the rink is usually open from mid-October to mid-April, he said.
The outdoor rink at Rash Field, between the Maryland Science Center and the Rusty Scupper restaurant, attracts thousands of skaters every year. Its portable refrigeration equipment costs about $250,000.
Beyard said Westminster has a number of options to consider -- an indoor or outdoor rink; a concrete or sand base; and either city management or a contractor running the rink for the city.
"The one thing that doesn't vary is that there has to be some sort of refrigeration equipment to keep ice frozen," he said. "Right now, when Mother Nature says it's cold and freezing enough, we have ice. When it isn't, we don't."