Gina Davidson: It’ll be sad to see ice rink in cold storage

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THERE are some relationships in life that just have to end. No matter how heavy the heart is, when it’s over, it’s over.

That is why, every December, I can be found gazing longingly at East Princes Street Gardens’ ice rink rather than setting foot on it. I haven’t been able to since the last incident, you see, when I had to be physically removed from the scene.

Carted off to the St John’s Ambulance tent after a fall that hurt more than my pride, I was further mortified when it was discovered they didn’t have a Tubigrip bandage big enough to squeeze around my fast-swelling knees – the result of countless crashes to the ice.

Yes, my body’s irresistible attraction to ice is so bad that I am unable to set tentative blade to frozen surface before I’m drawn – with a thump – to the ground.

So now I get to wander the German market, ride on the Big Wheel and slide down the helter skelter, and leave the ice rink to those who know what they’re doing – all 50,000 of them per annum. That is why it’s odd that the attraction can’t seem to pay for itself.

Without doubt it’s a fantastic spectacle. The Christmas lights, the white expanse of ice (40 metres of it), the cheerful skaters, the aroma of mulled wine . . .

Admittedly it’s not all turned out quite how it was promised back in 1998 when the idea was first mooted. Then, the organisers – Karen Koren’s Winter Wonderland Ltd – compared it to a scene from the romantic movie Love Story, which featured shots of skaters in New York’s Central Park.

We were all invited to imagine “couples and children holding hands in fur-trimmed coats, skating through the twinkling winter lights with the aroma of hot chestnuts floating on the cold winter air. Significant others meeting over steaming hot chocolates with marshmallows on top, huddled up on a bench, watching the smiling faces and sweeping movements of the brightly dressed skaters”.

In reality it’s not been exactly like that. There have been times when the ice has melted due to unseasonable weather and it’s probably not too unkind to say that Edinburgh skaters are not quite as sartorial as New Yorkers – there are more bobble hats and bubble jackets than beautifully-cut winter coats and mink-trimmed mufflers. But there’s always enthusiasm.

Last year got the closest to the image we have of a festive fantasy. I was lucky to get a tour of the place the day before it opened to the public, and the amount of investment put in by the company that now runs it was staggering – especially as there had been cuts to the budget.

The ice rink was virginal in its whiteness, so new it was just out the wrapper – and it came with a hugely powerful chilling system to keep it frozen even if it rained. All the ice skates were also brand new, they had made all the furniture from wood – rather than sitting on cold metal – there were more heaters and tarpaulin walls as well as roofs to keep the warmth in, and there was even a baby changing pod. All in all there was more finesse about the place.

Yet, the operators last week admitted that they ended up £60,000 down once the festivities were over. There had been bad weather, which affected numbers, and the investment had been greater, but they are not the first to highlight the fact that running such an attraction is an expensive business.

In Salford the ice rink loses £125,000 a year, in Lincoln the event was scrapped this year after annual losses of £30,000 for the last five years and Chester has also abandoned its ice rink. Even in some US towns, ice rinks prove to be loss makers – one in St Charles, Missouri made a loss of $60,000 (£37,500) last year.

There are now apparently last-ditch attempts taking place to protect Edinburgh’s operator from any further losses, with the council considering putting in more than the £197,384 it already gives in funding to the city’s Christmas programme.

While I love the ice rink I’m not sure the council is the correct place to look for a bailout. Times are difficult but in every city where a festive ice rink is established, retailers admit that it helps make their tills jingle all the more.

Surely they would be willing to help ensure the future of this attraction? Apparently the boss of a leading hotel chain has indicated that the hotel industry could step in and make a contribution towards the running costs, but so should those Princes Street traders who benefit from the massive draw of the city’s beautiful winter wonderland.

Without the ice rink – which is the focal point of Edinburgh’s Christmas activities – the heart and the light will go out of the Gardens this Christmas.