Public Comment

Commentary: Thoughts on Iceland By Tom Killilea

Tuesday March 07, 2006

I would like to thank the Daily Planet for two recent articles that included one of my favorite places in Berkeley—Berkeley Iceland. While I have no financial connection to Iceland or its owners, I do feel a strong connection with this uniquely Berkeley asset. As the father of one of those “...young girls laughing and skating...” that Marta Yamamoto wrote about in her South Berkeley exploration, I often tell people that Iceland is my second home—one that needs repair, but worth saving. 

The second article (“Berkeley Iceland Up for Sale,” Feb. 28) I think gives an overly pessimistic view of the rink’s situation. The sale of the rink is just as much an opportunity for the future as it is the possible loss of a historic cultural asset. 

In addition to being part of Berkeley since 1940, some of the things that make Berkeley Iceland unique are: 

• It was used in the past by U.S. Olympic skaters, including Brian Boitano, for training. 

• It is home to nationally competitive youth synchronized skating teams—the Ice Mystique—made up of girls from around the area. 

• Iceland employs young people from around the neighborhood to work in a variety of on and off-ice jobs. 

• Classes and programs are aimed at everyone, from the tiny tots and beginning adults to the more advanced Wednesday Blades clinic to midday Coffee Club time for adults—and that doesn’t include all the hockey programs. 

• It is just a fun place to hang out and see the full swath of the Berkeley community together having fun—something rare these days. 

Much of the coverage has focused on ammonia used in Iceland’s ice making equipment. The primary concern of the City of Berkeley (and everyone concerned with the rink) is with safety of the facility, not the specific refrigerant used. Ammonia is a commonly used refrigerant in large cooling systems and in many ways is better than the freon replacements. Ammonia can and is being used safely with appropriate controls as in the temporary unit currently in use at Iceland (which was certified by the Fire Department as part of the temporary permit) and another large site in Berkeley. Age and maintenance of the old freezer is a legitimate concern—especially for first responders. 

The freezing unit needs upgrading but that is only part of the story. Anyone who visits the rink knows that there are other improvements needed that affect both the ice itself and the off-ice amenities. The current owners—a group that includes people who were part of the original construction—have used Berkeley Iceland as a source of cash. This type of investing does not encourage capital spending for long term projects. As they looked at the costs of a more generalized improvement package it became clear that it did not meet their investment goal. 

This does not mean that it cannot fit into the goals of another group with a longer term outlook and a commitment to Berkeley Iceland as both a sports facility and community asset. 

The first step in a transformation of Berkeley Iceland is to gain approval of the extension of the use permit for the temporary refrigeration unit. It should be obvious that finding investors is much easier for an existing, working facility than for a closed shell of a huge building. The current managers of programs in Iceland believe that given time and the right conditions a group might be put together which would invest in the facility to make the improvements to sustain this community asset for the next 20 years and beyond. 

The long-term survival of Berkeley Iceland can be ensured with the support of the entire community. Unlike the rinks in Oakland and San Francisco, Berkeley Iceland receives no financial support from the city government. I don’t believe they are looking for such support (though it probably would be welcome). But there are other things the city, businesses, and everyone can do to help make our community asset remain economically viable: 

• Create after school programs at Iceland in conjunction with Parks and Recreation Department and BUSD. 

• Incorporate the Iceland facility into a larger recreation center proposed for the adjacent Derby Street property. 

• Create programs in conjunction with other sports organizations, such as the YMCA. 

• Cross-advertise with other local businesses. 

• Have your next party or organization event at Iceland. 

• Go out and join your friends and neighbors on the ice. 

The sale and change in ownership of this unique and very Berkeley place does not have to be a loss. It is an opportunity to keep and strengthen a 66-year-old tradition so that it remains vital for the future. Too often we forget what these institutions mean to the community until they are gone. We have a chance to help save this one for us all. 


Tom Killilea is a Berkeley resident.›