When a group of white businessmen set out to revitalize the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington 20 years ago, some black residents who lived around the rink were suspicious.
“They thought, ‘Here are a bunch of white guys coming in to take over the ice rink and we won’t get to use it,’” recalled Willem Polak, chief executive of the Potomac Riverboat Co. and founder of the nonprofit Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena. “We said: ‘No, that’s not what we are going to do. We care deeply about the city and just want to fix this place up so more people in the community can enjoy it.’ ”
The ice arena, the only indoor rink in the District, was built by the National Park Service in 1976. It was an odd but welcomed bicentennial gift to a much-neglected part of town. But residents said the Park Service failed to maintain the rink. They complained that the air ducts were clogged with pigeon droppings and that the de-condensation equipment malfunctioned.
Enter the Friends, alumni from the prestigious St. Albans School and Gonzaga College High School in the District. Drawing on corporate connections, their old school chums and their own money, they were able to get government and business alike to act.
In 1996, they leased the rink from the Park Service and enlisted a legion of volunteers to refurbish the place. The air ducts were cleaned, structural repairs made, equipment replaced and the unsightly wire-mesh security bars removed from the windows.
Someone with the Friends knew someone in Atlanta who was friends with the president of Nike. The shoe company donated 200 pairs of new ice skates to the ice arena, along with other equipment.
The arena was never marketed exclusively to the District’s black residents or those who were poor. But because of its location, a lot of the people who first started coming to the arena were African American or low-income.
“It started out as something of a sanctuary for kids,” Polak said. “Some of those who lived in public housing across the street would drop by, and we’d ask, ‘Are you hungry?’ And we would give them something to eat. Or, if they didn’t have a telephone, we’d let them use ours. And then we’d say: ‘We can teach you to skate, give you a teacher, a helmet and gloves. And when you fall down, we’ll teach you how to get up.’ ”
The first skating class offered by the Friends attracted 12 kids. Twenty years later, the Kids on Ice program has more than 10,000 participants. And the Friends can boast that 43 percent of them come from predominantly black Ward 7, where the rink is located, and Ward 8.
But with the success has come new and even greater challenges.
The rink’s free and subsidized skating programs have become so popular that most classes are overcapacity. Hundreds of kids, many of them black, are being turned away for lack of space.
To offset the cost of the free programs, the Friends reserve 60 percent of the ice time for paying customers. Those tend to be white youngsters who skate for teams at private schools and universities throughout the Washington area.
An unintended consequence of that arrangement has been a growing perception that privileged white kids from across town are being favored over black kids from the neighborhood.
“We asked one person for a grant who came to the rink on a mid-afternoon while the Gonzaga hockey team was on the ice,” Polak recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, this rink is just for white kids’ and turned us down. She didn’t realize that Gonzaga was paying for the ice and the money was going to fund the free programs.”
The Friends believe that expanding the ice arena to include a second rink would solve the problem. In 2013, they persuaded then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray to budget $15 million for the new construction, which was then estimated to cost $20 million. The Friends pledged to raise the other $5 million.
But Gray was defeated in his bid for reelection before the money could be allocated. His successor, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, has set aside $10 million for the project in her 2017 budget. She says she will determine whether more funds can be allocated to help complete the project now estimated to cost $30 million.
But the growing concerns about a white takeover of the rink need to be addressed.
“I support the rink; I used to ice skate myself,” said Gray, who was elected this month to the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. Council. “But with such a large investment of D.C. tax money, we have to make sure that the people who live in the community have the opportunity to participate.”
For the past 20 years, the Friends have demonstrated how the haves of the city can help the have-nots.
“With a second rink, we could double the number of kids who participate in the program,” Polak said.
It’s an investment that city would do well to make.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.