Celebrating Six Years of Creating Winter Magic and Community at Hoyt Park

    icon Jan 18, 2018
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With one of the most beautiful and accessible skating and sledding facilities available in the Great Lakes Bay Region, The Friends of Hoyt Park and Positive Results in Downtown Saginaw are keeping their fingers crossed for cool temperatures and plenty of snowfall as the sixth season of Bringing Back the Ice at Hoyt Park commences and plans are finalized for the 5th Annual Outhouse Race. Featuring Free Open Skating & Sledding, affordable $2.00 skate rentals and free hot chocolate and cookies served at Hoyt Park’s renovated warming house, five weeks of fun and family oriented events are scheduled beginning Saturday, January 20th and concluding on Saturday February 17th with the 5th Annual Outhouse Race, which is sponsored by 97.3 Joe FM.

During the 1920’s when Hoyt Park was at its peak during the winter months, as many as 7,000 patrons would converge upon this expansive skating & sledding resource in one day, while averaging 100,000 skaters every winter; and throughout the decades it has remained the crown jewel of Saginaw’s parks & recreational programs.

With the downturn in population and diminished financial resources, in 2003 the City of Saginaw could no longer afford to maintain the facility, so consequently city baseball, softball, flag football and other recreational leagues, which had provided an outlet for residents through many generations, were suddenly no longer available.  But in 2008 a concerned group of Saginaw citizens came together to create a group that would help resurrect and maintain the historic park, forming a grassroots citizen group called The Friends of Hoyt Park.

Spearheaded by Larry Brethauer and Chris Packard, the group signed a lease with the city to bring the park back to life, initially setting its sights on bringing baseball back to the historic facility. With the 1,800- square foot warming house operational after a $400,000 renovation, the beauty of this historic recreational landmark was finally opened to the public in the winter months.

Since its inception six years ago Bringing Back the Ice has indeed proven that ‘if you build it they will come’. According to Brethauer, “With a series of events of this nature everything is based upon the weather, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the good turnouts. We usually get at least 200 people on a low day and as high as a couple thousand people for each of the events that we feature.  I think we’re still at the tip of the iceberg and as people become more aware that this is going on, the crowds will build. It’s touchy because if the weather is too cold people shy away and if it’s too warm the ice melts, so the prime temperature is within that 20 to 30-degree range.”

Adds Positive Result’s Jeanne Conger, “For each weekend event during the four hours when the warming house is open we will be serving hot chocolate and cookies; and thanks to our sponsors, people are truly rediscovering the magic of this important community resource.” This year’s sponsors include Impact Saginaw Credit Unions, Saginaw County Parks & Recreation, Catholic Federal Credit Union, Meijer, Dow Chemical, the City of Saginaw, 107.1 FM, Macdonald Broadcasting, WHNN and WIOG.

“Rather than simply opening the park and preparing the rink, we schedule different events to encourage and give people more of a reason to show up,” continues Larry.

The 2018 Bringing Back the Ice Schedule begins on January 20th with Night Skating from 4-7 PM. “This is the one time that we do night skating,” notes Larry. “It costs $50 per hour to run the lights and every time a light goes out is costs up to $100 to replace one, so with 400 lights in the park that can add up. Plus, you have to hire an electrician to run the box and cranes to replace the lights. Originally, we were thinking the skating and sledding would be a day-time activity, but the park is so beautiful at night and given that its already wired, we wanted to offer this opportunity for night skating to the community.”

Jan. 27 – Skating with the SVSU Hockey Team from noon to 4 pm. 27th.  “For this event, the entire team and the coaches will be attending to help work with the kids,” explains Larry. “The idea is for them to skate around and see who might need help learning how to skate. As with any sport, it’s important to learn the fundamentals from the get-go. I’ve seen kids falling down and within five minutes of the team working with these kids, they’re skating all around the park.”

Feb. 3 – Skate with the Mascots from noon to 4 pm. “This is a new event for this year,” states Larry. “All the high schools and colleges in the region have mascots, so we thought it would be fun to have them all come to the park. Regardless of whether it’s cold or warm, it will be fun to have them either skating on the ice or milling around and interacting with the kids.”

Feb. 10 – School Skate from noon to 4 pm. “This is an event that our volunteer Ruth Ann Knapp came up with,” notes Larry. “Again, all the schools in the region have certain colors and uniforms, so if they show up wearing the colors of their school it shows both pride and offers a good reason for people to show up and enjoy the ice.”

Feb. 17 - 5th Annual Outhouse Race on Feb. 17th from Noon to 4 PM.  According to Mike VanEck, who is Chairman of the annual Outhouse Races, community response to this visual fun-fest has been impressive.

“Two out of our first four Outhouse Races we had no snow,” he reflects, “and last year I remember we had record-highs and it was 70 degrees out and I went golfing after the race,” he laughs. “But each year despite the weather, we’ve been able to grow the event and last year was our biggest year yet. Between all the participants we had close to 1,500 people coming and going, and added our own ‘Shade Tent’ and started providing beer and wine for sale, which people enjoyed.”

“Last year we had 23 entries and along with the tent and food vendors, our goal is to make this more a destination in and of itself,” he continues. “We offer cash prizes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, plus the Saginaw Spirit donates their Eagles Nest suite as a Judges Choice Award. Additionally, we stage a Crazy Hat Contest, so anybody who shows up can design a crazy hat and during our intermission those folks line-up and parade their hat in front of judges and can win a $50.00 gift card.”

“Additionally, if people don’t know how to build an outhouse for the races, this year the Saginaw Career Complex can build the frame for you, so you can decorate it and add the finishing touches. There’s a $100 fee for them to do this, but we can also provide you with the plans for building the frame. For many of the outhouse participants, their outhouse is like a race car for them and it evolves from year-to-year.  One of the funniest moments I can recall was during the second year of our event when Habitat for Humanity built an outhouse for competition and it slowly fell apart. But my personal favorites are the ones that the Saginaw Fire Department constructed, along with the one the Amigo team built – they put a ton of work into it and it looked slick and was one of the fastest. But mainly, beyond the fun for people constructing these outhouses for competition, is that this is a great team-building endeavor, which is why so many companies do it. Spectators really get into it.”

Grass Roots Growth & Modern Reality

The Friends of Hoyt Park are a textbook example of what can be achieved when a small group of people bond together behind a civic-minded goal.  Grooming the ice, keeping it clean, laying the ice, and staffing the warming house are all realized by the efforts of the sponsoring entities.

“The whole idea is to provide these events to the general public for next to nothing,” explains Brethauer. “Luckily I have a group of passionate and dedicated people to get the ice into shape. Four guys instrumental in making sure the ice is groomed each year and looking good are Dave (Jarz) Jarzabkowski, Larry Martinez and Alga Smith. Two of them are City retirees and grooming the ice is what they once did as part of their duties. Without their efforts, we wouldn’t be able to have these events.”

“The city has no recreation budget anymore and a few years ago they let their grant writer go. They write grants in-house for police and fire, but have no money for the park. They do assist with plowing the roads into the park when needed.  If done right I believe revenue could be derived from the park, but City Council and the people sitting there need to have the mindset to pull it off.  We did go to the County to get a small millage on the ballot for this, but they weren’t interested; yet that same year the Zoo got a millage initiative on the ballot because they felt that was more county-wide in scope. They said if you do this just for Hoyt Park, the other parks will wonder why do they get this and not us?”

“We raised $400,000 to renovate the warming house through community foundations and some of the big players in town and also raised over $100,000 when we renovated the ball diamonds, but you can only go to the well so many times.  We have talked about doing a fundraiser to establish a $500,000 endowment so we would have $25,000 each year to run the park, but even after these events are over we don’t stop anybody from skating or sledding during the remainder of the winter. We just guarantee the ice will be in good shape and the warming house open for the dates we stage these events.”

“It takes 600,000 to a million gallons of water to lay ice for the park, but we use unfiltered water and fortunately Catholic Federal Credit Union has been our water sponsor for the last few years, which usually costs around $1,000 or under. If they were using filtered water it would run around $20,000 to lay the ice.”

“The water comes from the bay and into the water works and there is a pipe system that goes back to the 1930s from the water works to the park. Each year when we open the valves we pray it works, because if for some reason those pipes were to break there is no other way to get the water over there. You can’t have the fire department bring it in because it would be cost prohibitive, but there’s still good pressure from the pipe system. The water bubbles out of the ground and goes to where it needs to be and none of it floods into the infield because we build the diamonds up during the ball park renovation.”

For this core nucleus of community activists that got Hoyt Park back to shape, the benefits have been immensely rewarding. “Anytime you have a passion and come up with an idea the first thing you get is a group of naysayers that say it can’t be done,” reflects Brethauer. “But people will definitely support something if it has value; and there is a vein of emotion going back to great memories from this park that are securing it as an asset for the future.”

For more information and to become involved with the Friends of Hoyt Park or Positive Results Downtown you can contact Larry Brethauer at 989.284.0945 or Jeanne Conger at 989.753.9168.

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