Death of an Oval

I am not talking about the SLC oval (knock on wood!) but rather the slowly crumbling facility up in Butte, Montana. In February of 2003 I had a REALLY good 500m race there at US national age-class championships, and set my first masters record.

Here is what Butte looked like, on that day in 2003. This is me with my friends Carla & Kathie in the warm sun.

So I have some warm fuzzy memories of that track, as do many skaters. This track was often used by Dan Jansen, Eric Flaim, Bonnie Blair, and others in their early season preparation, and as recently as 8 years ago was the site of world cups & world championships, and countless national age class meets. (most of these links are to several of Jerry Search’s exceptional photo galleries, here is a panorama he put together, a really good sense of the track)

When I was driving to Idaho, Jessica and I passed through Butte. To keep my motivational fires going, I went visit the track. Maps still list this facility as the “US high altitude sports center”. I was horrified at what I found there.

The track & buildings are one notch from ruin. Many cooling pipes are broken and poking up out of the ground like skeletal remains. Windows are shattered and birds fly in and out, roosting inside the central building, covering the insides with guano.

Looking in the dirty & broken windows, one can see rooms with pads, slideboards, EMT supplies, massage tables, and on one wall, the results from an America’s cup in 2004. Maybe the last time this rink was used?? Is there still anyone skating in Butte?

The only sign of recent human use I could see was some writ-large pornographic graffiti drawn on the gravel of the track. Someone is still mowing the grass, so maybe there is still useage of the grounds, but I doubt it.

Paul Marchese joked once that he wanted to buy Butte’s compressors, and set up an oval in his backyard. In all seriousness, as sad as the demise of this once beautiful track is, there is opportunity within destruction:

Why not dedicate a grant writer to find a corporate sponsor or federal grant, load all the salvageable equipment into a U-Haul, and transfer the ESSENTIAL GUTS of this oval to a MAJOR population center, or even better, an athletic field on the grounds of a huge university? New York City? Boston? Seattle? Somewhere with a major winter sports vibe and a critical mass of hockey clubs as feeders. One could then re-create the track within a tennis-bubble style structure.

Admit implicitly in its creation that a speedskating facility can never pay for itself, so use the infield for something else, like indoor soccer fields, batting cages, a bingo hall, volleyball courts, an expo-area, slot machines, maybe a lab that needs a “cold” environment, ANYTHING that will pay for it’s existence, and maybe give athletes the possibility of off-season jobs.

Is this a pie-in-the-sky idea? Maybe. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and re-creating a long track can involve some really expensive details, but it’s worth at least considering, rather than simply letting birds crap on possibility, and letting the elements slowly destroy potential.

Step back, and from a distance, the track still hums with memories, mine and others, but I am not sure if it will continue to create new ones.

p.s. The Butte oval is not completely dead!! I emailed one of the Montana speedskating club contacts, and this is what Tina wrote back.

Andrew,
The oval is not dead. As you saw, the tubing is shot, so we quit using it in December 2004. Last winter we went on 100% natural ice. We had ice from the beginning of January until just about March. It was the best ice we’ve had in years. WE plan on sticking with natural ice unless we get a $3 million wind fall. Since we are on natural ice and can’t guarantee it, we no longer host sanctioned meets. The building has needed work for years. It never really got finished. We are trying to chip away at small improvements this summer.

The club got down to about nothing, but we starting working hard last winter to rebuild interest. We do seem to have a core handful of children and adults now.

If you have a few million dollars laying around, feel free to send some.

13 Responses to “Death of an Oval”

  1. Do not admit implicity that a large format oval can not be a viable community recreation facility. Do not give up the ghost so quickly…

    An oval won’t be so viable in a economically depressed town of less than 100,000 like Butte. You won’t see success in cities without a long tradition of ice sport, or with a modest population. You’re sure to fail when sub-par management is allowed to stay in place for over a decade. Is a non-subsidized oval used primarily for high-performance training viable? Hell no…

    BUT

    A modest 400m or 333m outdoor oval in a northern climate, in the right location within a city that is already an active center for ice-sports, well managed, with a buiness plan geared towards viablilty rather than high-performance results, may have a chance to be successful.

  2. It’s sad to see the Butte oval in such a state of disrepair. I also have great memories of training and racing at that rink. It would be great if someone could move what’s left of that equipment to another location.

    Think of the development potential for speedskating if there were a long track oval in a major northern population center such as New York City or Boston.

    One thing the Butte and Utah ovals have in common is that the decision to build on cheap land took precedence over a vision for the facility’s future use. Obviously, Butte is in the middle of nowhere…and you can’t deny that more people would use the Utah Olympic Oval if it had been built either by the University of Utah or up in Park City instead of way out in Kearns.

    I think you’re right to knock on wood when it comes to our oval, Andrew. It also needs help. Even though it is a subsidized, high performance training center, this facility could do a much better job of losing less money without interfering with the athletes’ training. In fact, maybe if the oval were doing better financially, then they could have had the ice up sooner, without having to wait for USS to get their crap together!

    Some possible ideas: Open the hockey rink ice earlier in the day to attract young figure skaters who want to train before school. Go around Salt Lake to see what kind of events are being hosted by places like the Salt Palace or the South Town Expo Center, and see if you can offer your space in the off season. Set up a portable skateboard park with ramps and half pipes, so the kids can have a cool place to skateboard when it’s over 100 degrees outside.

    Andrew, I love your idea of having a lab inside the oval!! That would be the one situation that would enable me to come back and compete.

  3. We’re not dead and have no plans of ever being dead, so hands off our equipment. We have a VERY long tradition of ice sports in Butte. We just went through a bit of a void for two or three years. I’m glad for everyone’s comments-they certainly provide motivation to get things back on track at our oval.

  4. We went through a scare with the John Rose Oval in the winter of ‘04-’05–broken compressor and no money to fix it. We had natural ice that year–about 6 weeks of it, and then finally found Guidant as a generous donor of grant money and matching grant money (my cousin’s PR firm actually handled the “solicitation-for-donations-to-match-Guidant’s” letter campaign, so I got to see how that evolved.) Last year the Oval was up and running, and we had a great season. BUT–the thing is sadly underutilized, particularly in the summer (in winter they get pretty decent open-skating crowds, and the infield is used a lot for youth hockey practices). John Rose is unique in that it is a concrete oval that is used for inline skating in the summer; we have track races every Wednesday and there’s a really cool aggressive skate park in the infield. Still–most times when I go, I’m the only one there. Things may be changing, though–a couple of weeks ago, on a nice summer evening, the Oval was being used by: 10 or so speedskaters, from 3 different clubs; 10 or so aggressive skaters/boarders; a couple of rec inliners; and about 10 Rollerderby girls (the newest group to discover the Oval). It was really cool! I still feel that the Oval, for as great of a facility as it is, is sadly underadvertised and underutilized, and I’m afraid that without Guidant, we’d be headed in Butte’s direction.

    (So keep buying those pacemakers…or,um maybe not…!)

  5. Hey guys I heard that there is going be a skate park built in that space next to the parking lot. That may be good to attract some younger kids and maybe the adults if they take their kids but then again that will attract the wrong crowd too. I remember last season that three kids got arrested for going in to the oval buying drinks at conssesions and then skating boarding around in the oval. So who knows what they should have done was put maybe a nice restraunt or something like that for the athletes the parents and to attract attention.

  6. Andrew, nice write-up about the USHASC and your experiences there. I was a distant third in your record breaking race here in Butte and have my own good memories of the rink. As Tina noted, the rink isn’t dead, but it isn’t thriving either. Butte may not be big enough to support such a rink on it’s own and ironically our speedskating club has slowly shrunk since the rink opened in 1987. Unfortunately, while Butte got things going with building refrigerated rinks in the US, this also hurt it in the long run. When it opened it was one of three refrigerated rinks in the country, but it inspired Minnesota to build one which led to Milwalkee going indoor. Then Salt Lake built an oval for the Olympics and Butte went from being the hot new place for meets to way down on the list in a few short years. I don’t have any answers to get us back to having a refrigerated oval again, but I think we can make it work with natural ice and rebuild our club back to what it used to be. Thanks for your concern.

  7. The problem in Butte is that when they built it, there were grandiose plans for a fancy high-performance trianing center, all kinds of bells-and-whitles, to be housed in what is now a rediculous cinder-block shell full of pigeon shit.

    Had Butte simply built a modest oval, with ancilliary facilities more approproate to their market size and economy, perhaps things would be different today.

    Butte used to have a quite lovely natural ice oval closer to uptown, simply dropping refrigeration into that site may have yielded a better long term result.

    Take this as a lesson, Oval planners of the world; Do NOT build your facility as a national training site, build it to fit the needs of YOUR community…The National Team will find a better place to go eventually - but the athletes and families of YOUR town will always love you.

  8. Oh — by the way, any of you blog readers in SLC who might care to discuss over a cocktail, or perhaps a beer and a hot dog at a SL Bees game, drop me an e-mail — I’m here unitl Saturday.

    I think you know who you are and how to reach me. I’m always eager to bond with my fellow “subversives”.

    Oh…I’ll have to disagree with the person who said Butte inspired Milwaukee to go indoors. I’m pretty sure THAT inspiration was blown in by the wind.

  9. Andrew,
    I got into speedskating because of the High Altitude Sports Center in Butte. I stopped by there one winter afternoon and watched the outdoor national championships one Saturday in the early 90’s. I was dazzled by skaters on the ice. Charlie Worley was a wonder with the zamboni. My fondest memory of ice was an evening of skating after the Junior World Championships held there in 1997. To glide around that oval with the Rockies in the background and the moon on the ice is something I will always treasure. I have visited all the refrigerated ovals in North America and Butte is my favorite.
    In my spare time, I am writing a novel set in Butte about a speedskater who disappears at the High Altitude Sports Center…so, it feels odd to see, in real time, the Sports Center itself may be disappearing too.
    Butte actually has a rich tradition of speedskating going back decades before the Sports Center Oval was built. I’ve had great fun interviewing folks about their memories of racing at the Holland Rink in Butte in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
    Butte’s rink has been overtaken by Salt Lake’s…(and by the idea that all important skating competitions must be done indoors so weather is not a factor)but I think the real issue here is how few actual speedskaters we have in the entire country. To my knowledge, every long track oval in the U.S. has had financial difficulties of one sort or another in the past 10 years. It takes a lot of money to maintain a 400-meter oval of artificial ice…I dream of the day when there are more rinks in the country and 10 times–if not 100 times–the number of speedskaters we now have participating in this beautiful sport.
    Howard Morris
    Saint Paul, Minnesota

    P.S. Andrew, I was in Butte in 2003 and have photos of your race!

  10. Hey who can i talk to to get info about this rink???
    My e-mail is jaylivestrong@aol.com thanks to anyone who could help me.
    Jay

  11. I have interest from my community of Bemidji Mn to get an oval built. It gives me pause as to how big the community can support. Bemidji is a hot bed for ice sports. It’s very supportive of outdoor winter activities and isn’t afraid to embrace the odd sports, as the last mens and womens curling team for the Olympics come from here. We have four indoor hockey rinks with the plans to build three more. We have homes with hockey rinks and boards in their yards. We have folks building rinks on lakes and in their grass ( as well as me). All I can say is skating is in the blood here and I guess my thought is to start simple. I won my first and only all around championships in Butte. I trained my rear off their. I have so many wonderful memories of the community and skating with the sun beating down on me. Even though it was cold, it was warm. same as it is here. You can’t shake the passion for skating out of the people of Bemidji Mn. I have an 88 yr old Manatoba Champion when he was 14 that skates in in my club. His dad was a 3 time Jr. world team medalist for Norway and a Canadian coach. There are Olympic hockey players here. I guess what I am saying is that my community would be blessed to have their compressors etc. but at the same time, I am the last person to say give up on your vision. I think it’s great that they have ice still because that is what skating is about….just getting on the ice. I pray they can make it go. My best memories are there. Thats the place that gave me my chance. Mike Crowe coached me then and Butte MT was a great place to train. Best of luck to all of you. Chantal Cermak (Bailey)

  12. Wel, SLC might not be out off the woods yet as you might read this article from the Deseret news. The city of Kearns and the UAF have until Jan1st to decide what to do with the white elephant. If UAF lets it go and Kearns take it over, I doubt that the the municipality will have the wil and the funds to keep the Oval running. And the UAF might be trying to have the city fork some money to pay the losses it incurrs from the facility. They have not reached an agreement in almost 4 years and I doubt that they will anytime soon.

    From SLC, where snow is everywhere! over 1.5 feet on my driveway!
    Eric Kraan.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    Oval contract about to expire

    Ownership of Oly venue may revert to Kearns

    By Amy Choate-Nielsen (Deseret Morning News)

    KEARNS - Fourteen years ago, the collaborative movement behind building an
    Olympic speedskating oval in Kearns was idealistic and eager.

    Today, with 12 days left until the known future of the Utah Olympic Oval
    officially expires, things have changed.

    The Jan. 1, 2008, expiration of a contract between the Utah Athletic
    Association and the Oquirrh Recreation and Parks District has been looming
    since 1993, but both groups are still trying to hammer out negotiations that
    would help preserve the oval’s future, rather than ultimately revert
    ownership of the facility to Kearns.

    The facility has been operating at an annual deficit of $1.5 million, which
    is paid by the Utah Athletic Foundation, and board members from the Oquirrh
    Recreation and Parks District are worried residents of their township won’t
    be able to afford that deficit if the contract dissolves on Jan. 1. Instead,
    the district is trying to strike a deal that would allow the foundation to
    continue paying - or find a new entity to manage the oval.

    “Things have changed since 1993,” said Alan Anderson, chairman of the
    Oquirrh Recreation and Parks District board of trustees. “No one knew the
    numbers at the time. There are a lot of little things that have to be worked
    out. … No one projected if the (2002 Salt Lake City Olympics) would make
    money, it was all before all of the things leading up to the Olympics.”

    Exactly how the district plans to work out the details and finances of the
    oval is unclear because every discussion on the long-term disposition of the
    oval has taken place behind closed doors due to “contract negotiations.”

    According to Brent Sheets, executive director of the recreation district,
    the district plans to file an extension to the current agreement that would
    allow the foundation to continue to operate the oval until a new contract is
    agreed upon.

    The foundation could have opted to terminate the contract in 2003, but it
    did not.

    The district’s goal throughout discussions during the past year has been to
    keep the cost of the oval from falling on Kearns residents. One option that
    could be included in the agreement could involve a leasing agreement where
    the foundation leases the facility from the district, Sheets said.

    “(The oval) will not be operated by the district at the expense of Kearns
    residents,” Sheets said. “We will not allow that to happen.”

    The foundation funds the oval and the Olympic ski jump and bobsled park at
    an annual deficit of about $3.5 million through interest made from a $75
    million endowment created by the profits gained from the 2002 Salt Lake
    Olympics.

    Foundation president and chief executive officer Colin Hilton said earlier
    this year the foundation had no intention of “walking away from the Olympic
    oval.” But he did not elaborate on the oval’s possible future at this point
    because of ongoing negotiations.

    “We’re optimistic within a couple of months we’ll have a really good
    long-term, solid agreement between our two organizations,” Hilton said.
    “From my end, I feel really optimistic that we’ll get this worked through.
    Our negotiations have been very good.”

    U.S. Speedskating relocated its national organization to the oval in 2006,
    and Anderson says it’s important to keep the oval open and functioning as an
    ice sheet to preserve the Olympic legacy that was started in Kearns.

    “In my mind, (the oval) is good for winter sports development for youths and
    for the foundation and the fitness center,” Anderson said. “What we’re faced
    with is what’s in the best interest for the service district, its patrons
    and the legacy of the Olympic movement, and there are lots of
    possibilities.”

  13. I’ve been doing a search on designs/sketches for the olympic oval at Crossover Commons. I want to use this post as a lesson of what to do/not do in the pursuit of building an oval. I’ve thought about what I need to do the most, but what I need help in doing is finishing my business plan. I am open to help from the speedskating masses.

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