When businesses were abandoning downtown Rockford in the 1970s, city and park district leaders made a bold decision: build an indoor ice rink on the river. Guess what? It laid the groundwork for today’s renaissance.
When Jay Graham and his family moved to Rockford, there was no indoor ice rink. The self-proclaimed rink rat traveled to the Wagon Wheel Resort in Rockton for his ice fix. Once the Rockford Park District built and opened the Riverview Ice House, in 1975, it became the place Graham and his hockey buddies spent most of their free time.
At age 18, Graham and two friends were hired to assist hockey coaches, handle maintenance and drive the Zamboni, a vehicle used to smooth the surface of the ice. Forty years later, Graham still plays hockey at Riverview.
“It’s been a key part of my life in Rockford,” he says. “To watch hockey grow in this town has been awesome. It’s created so much energy and fun.” Today, Graham co-owns an advertising firm in Rockford.
Graham’s not alone in his passion for Riverview, a longtime staple in downtown Rockford. Since opening its doors for the first time on July 4, 1975, the ice house has been an important asset in which many residents have learned lifelong recreational skills.
“Riverview is a legacy facility for the Rockford Park District,” says Jay Sandine, park district deputy director. “There’s a lot of excitement surrounding new facilities in the park district, but for a facility like Riverview to remain that vibrant and important, for so long, is also exciting. Anyone who’s lived in Rockford knows about Riverview Ice House.”
Over the past four decades, public skate sessions, nationally recognized figure skating summer schools, and annual spring ice shows, hockey lessons, leagues and tournaments have kept Riverview busy year-round. In 2014, the combined attendance at Riverview and its sister facility, Carlson Ice Arena, the district’s Loves Park, Ill., ice rink that opened in 1998, was 477,590 user visits. This included hockey, ice rentals, skating programs and public skate sessions.
To recognize Riverview’s 40 years in business, the park district held a celebration at the venerable ice rink on July 4. More than 450 people gathered for speeches, birthday cake, giveaways, free skating lessons and a complimentary public skate. A patriotic red, white and blue ice show highlighted the program and a sparkling new Zamboni was parked on center ice.
“It was wonderful,” says Julie Elliott, a park district commissioner and former Riverview employee. “Friendships were rekindled. Former staff members who hadn’t seen each other in years embraced. The stands were packed. It felt like a family reunion.”
How It Began
Soon after Webbs Norman was hired as the park district’s executive director in 1972, one of the first things he noticed sitting atop his desk was a stack of files regarding unfulfilled projects. One of them pertained to the need for an indoor skating facility. The park district had always maintained outdoor rinks only.
“There were letters dating back 12 years, from citizens who wanted to build an indoor ice skating arena,” Norman recalls. “The Wagon Wheel had a big indoor rink, but it couldn’t handle all the people who wanted to skate.”
Norman called 30 people from that file and scheduled a meeting. Subcommittees were formed to review the project. The group decided it was feasible to build an artificial ice rink. The funds could be raised through a bond issue, with the debt paid by user fees.
“It was one of the best committees I’ve ever worked with,” says Norman, who retired in 2006. The original plan called for building the rink on a 13-acre site next to Elliot Golf Course, on Rockford’s east side, by September 1974. The park district board agreed.
But Jon Olson, then-director of the Tri-County Planning Commission, popped into Norman’s office late one day to suggest a different location. How about constructing the rink along the river in downtown Rockford? The site was the old City of Rockford Public Works yard. It was centrally located for east- and west-siders. It could give downtown Rockford a spark. And it could tie in with a civic center, which city leaders expected to build downtown.
“They were all legitimate reasons why we should build downtown,” says Norman. “I called Alderman John Holub to explain the idea. He loved it and shared it with other aldermen, who were also on board. But he also called the newspaper to let them know, unbeknownst to me, the planning committee and the park district commissioners.”
A few days later, Norman grabbed a newspaper and saw the front page headline: “Park District Relocates Ice Rink.” Panicked, he thought his brief tenure as district director was over. “Once I got up off the floor, I called the commissioners and told them. The funny thing is they all liked the idea.”
As with any construction project, this one faced hurdles along the way: building on a site that was in poor condition for construction, public misperceptions about funding, and the decision to add a marina to the property. But the park district worked through all obstacles and the Riverview Ice House was unveiled. The final cost was $3.2 million.
“I believe Riverview would have still had an impact if we had built near Elliot Golf Course, but it wouldn’t have been the same,” says Norman. “At the time, everyone was moving out of downtown and heading east. By being downtown, Riverview has served all citizens in a balanced way.”
At the 1975 grand opening, then-Congressman John B. Anderson spoke. The first two skaters were James Beattie, 15, and Patricia Hennigan, 9, winners of the Name the Rink contest. There was free skating that weekend, with more than 2,000 people participating. In the first six months alone, 25,000 people paid to skate.
“The first priority of ice has always been to the general public,” says Elliott. “Then it’s the learn-to-skate lesson programs and third is the rentals to groups like hockey and figure skating. Riverview has been a place for all to enjoy.”
These days, Riverview Ice House is also a destination along the Rock River. The Forest City Queen excursion boat and rail-based Trolley Car 36 operate from Riverview’s surrounding park.
“Riverview opened up all kinds of opportunities. It was a new era,” says Norman. “The rink was a great motivator, implementer and instigator for helping to meet the community’s needs. The foundation of what we’re doing today in downtown Rockford goes back to the Riverview Ice House.”
“It was the first downtown destination for year-round recreation sports,” adds Elliott. “It was the catalyst for the MetroCentre, for the expansion of Burpee Museum. It was a safe, clean, family-oriented gathering place for the community. Riverview has encouraged development along the riverfront. The beauty of that setting is unmatched.”
Riverview Ice House is the backdrop for some incredible memories. The ice house hosted such events as an exhibition game between the U.S. Olympic hockey team and the University of Illinois-Chicago. Olympic champions Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton and Dorothy Hamill, as well as Rockford’s own Sandy Lenz, Kath Malmburg and Damon Allen, have performed at Riverview’s annual Spring Ice Show. There have even been marriage proposals made on the ice.
The main rink at Riverview is named after Rockford’s Janet Lynn, an Olympic bronze medalist and five-time U.S. Ladies Figure Skating champion. Curling, broomball and 3-on-3 hockey tournaments have been held on the Studio Rink, a smaller sheet of ice at Riverview.
“That little rink is a real asset in the hockey and figure skating communities,” says Graham. “It’s unique. You’d be hard -pressed to find many rinks that size in the country.”
The Rockford Icemen, an independent high school-age hockey team, plays at Riverview and Carlson; the team has won 16 state championship titles, including 15 straight. The Rockford IceHogs team, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, has also impacted local hockey, especially the park district’s Jr. IceHogs hockey program, which continues to grow in popularity.
“The partnership with the IceHogs has been a game-changer,” says Sandine. “It’s an example of what other junior programs strive to be.”
Sandine has spent 19 years working for the park district, many of them at Riverview. His first job was driving the Zamboni, nicknamed ‘Old Blue.’
“Riverview has been my favorite place to work,” he says. “It’s different from any other facility within the district. Most people visit a park district facility, like Magic Waters for example, once or twice a year. Riverview is a home away from home for most of our customers. Kids start taking skating lessons at age 3, and then become figure skaters or hockey players. As a staff, we enjoy watching the success of a child, and getting to know his or her family. We have parents here until 10 p.m. four nights a week. They might bring our Zamboni driver coffee or dinner. It’s pretty special.”
As deputy director for the park district, Sandine also is responsible for helping to promote a new downtown sports complex scheduled to open in 2016. The $54 million capital project, led in part by the park district and the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls for converting the former Ingersoll building, located on the river’s east bank, into an indoor sports facility that will host basketball and volleyball tournaments and other events.
“I talk about Riverview’s success every time I’m meeting with tournament directors,” Sandine says. “It’s a big change, for example, to move volleyball from the Indoor Sports Center in northeast Rockford to downtown. They don’t know what to expect, and it’s easy to fall into those misperceptions about safety or lack of parking.
“Riverview is a wonderful example of the good things going on in the downtown, which has positioned itself for even greater things in the future,” he adds. “When I started working here, downtown was quiet. Now there’s City Market, Prairie Street Brewhouse, the boat and trolley, and soon the sports complex. It’s exciting, and Riverview is in the middle of it.”
The future looks bright for both Riverview Ice House and Carlson Ice Arena. The park district staff, along with a citizen’s advisory committee comprised of people from figure skating and hockey communities, including members of the Chicago Blackhawks organization, are working on a master plan for both facilities.
The group is evaluating the need for additional sheets of ice, capital improvements and enhancements to the facilities, which will help to support the needs of recreational, figure skating and hockey programs.
“We’re looking at all programs, equipment, capital, trends and other ice facilities in the industry,” Sandine says. “When Riverview was built in 1975, the only revenue stream came from skating-related activities and amenities. Carlson, however, was designed to receive alternative revenue to support its bottom line through an arcade, tae kwon do and the popular Sapora Playworld. We need to look at those types of revenue opportunities and private partnerships when we revitalize Riverview.”
There’s no public debate that Rockford needs a third sheet of ice; the only question has been where. “In our opinion, the best long-term situation is to add another sheet at Carlson,” Sandine says. “It was designed to hold two sheets. At Riverview, we’re landlocked by the railroad and river.”
Sandine estimates the cost will be about $13 million – $4 million at Riverview to renovate the locker rooms and bathrooms and $9 million at Carlson for similar renovations, along with adding another sheet of ice. The money needed to complete the renovations will come from private and public fundraising, he says, along with park district funds for repair and replacement. There’s no timetable yet for completion.
For ice enthusiasts like Sandine, who’s not only worked at Riverview but plays in the adult hockey league there, the upgrades will be bittersweet.
“I love going down to that old rink,” he says, wistfully. “It’s colder, the ice is harder, and there’s something special about going into that old locker room. But it’s time to make some much-needed changes. It’s time to start a new legacy.”