PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Variable weather and other technical difficulties have caused snags, but city employees and volunteers continue to work to create opportunities for outdoor recreation in the city's parks this season.
The popular rope tow at Osceola Park, slated to begin operation last weekend, was instead inactive throughout the weekend because of electrical problems, but on Monday electricians were able to track down and solve the issue.
The rope tow is now operational, but it's use this weekend will be dependent on weather. With rain and temperatures in the 50s predicted for Saturday, it may not be feasible despite some new snow fall late Thursday into early Friday. It is unlikely it will be run, city Parks and Open Spaces Manager James McGrath said on Friday.
Efforts by the Pittsfield Fire Department to lay ice for a rink at Osceola have also been challenged by widely variable weather. As of late this week, snow "bumpers" have melted and there is no ice.
Similar issues with inconstant weather conditions plagued an attempt by firefighters to create a temporary rink at the Pittsfield Common last winter. This year, the effort was relocated because of the ongoing state-funded redevelopment of the Common, which will enter its third of four phases this year.
Free indoor ice skating will be an option, however, beginning this Saturday, thanks to a new collaboration between the city and the Boys & Girls Club. For four Saturdays in January and February, the first 100 to show up at the Melville Street recreation center will have free admission and free skates to use.
McGrath said the club is donating the cost of using the free skates, while the admission cost for the first 100 users is being covered by funds that the Parks and Recreation program has specifically earmarked for this activity.
"We have a dedicated account here for the purpose of supporting ice skating," said McGrath, which comes from money that was left to them some years ago by the Winter Sports Committee.
"We're constantly challenged, with the creation of ice rinks," McGrath said, and while the Fire Department had offered to volunteer its help to attempt an outdoor rink at Osceola, an indoor backup option was seen as desirable.
As for the Common, which remains strongly associated with this activity in the minds of many Pittsfield residents, an ice rink is not part of the master plan developed for the renovation several years ago after extensive public input. McGrath told the City Council last year that this was the result of concerns about damage an ice rink could do to the turf of the main lawn, but indicated that the possibility for ice skating at the Common may not be off the table.
Records from a century ago, at a time when the use of and budget for parks were both considerably higher, indicate that there were six public ice rinks in parks throughout the city, most notably the former pond at Springside Park, the subject of many picturesque local postcards of the era.
"There's been a lot of dissatisfied folks with the fact that we're not doing ice skating at the Common," said McGrath, and while no permanent plans to address outdoor ice skating have yet come about, his office will continue to make every effort to provide this recreation to the public any way it can. "We're still just testing the waters, seeing what's out there and what we can pull together, and what works."
Last year's attempts to get a skating rink operating at the Common were also bedeviled by weather.
McGrath said that given the climate issues encountered in recent winters, for now, the partnership with Boys & Girls Club for indoor skating — which additionally has such infrastructural amenities as skates available, bathrooms and concession offerings — may be the most viable option.
"With the weather the way it is, it's tricky to build a rink [outdoors]. If the city is building the rink, it's invariably going to cost overtime, and there's a significant cost to that," McGrath explained. "It probably is time to look at other alternatives besides outdoor ice rinks."
McGrath also hailed the variety of other winter activities that are enjoyed in Pittsfield parks during the winter: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice fishing, which appears to have begun in earnest this winter. Several ice fishers could be seen out on Onota Lake on Thursday, though ice is probably not sufficient at this time for vehicles and users should be attentive and cautious in their use of the lakes.
Besides Osceola, Clapp Park and the hill at Reid Middle School are excellent traditional sites for sledding that have already seen much use this season. Some planning is also in the works for a possible snow sculpture project in February, and the popular Polar Plunge event will also draw crowds of spectators to watch brave souls jump into freezing water to benefit Special Olympics next month.
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