GARDINER — Area ice skaters have been taking advantage of the Waterfront Park’s public rink this winter, thanks to a collaboration between volunteers from local churches and the city.

Amber and Manuel Matos of Gardiner recently brought their two daughters, Lillian and Celena, 7 and 3, to the 3,600-square-foot ice rink near the Kennebec River. It was the girls’ first time skating.

“We’re really excited to see it down here,” Amber Matos said.

By midday, temperatures had climbed to almost 30 degrees but the ice wasn’t completely frozen. The glass-like top layer cracked under footsteps, revealing a thin layer of water beneath.

While Manuel skated with Lillian, Celena sat in her parents’ car to avoid the cold.

“We’re going to come back when it’s warmer,” the 3-year-old said.

Volunteers from the two Gardiner churches, Life Community Church and Grace Community Chapel, worked with the fire department to establish the first layers of ice in December and have returned periodically to maintain the surface.

Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky said they’ve also been working with both the public works and the buildings and grounds departments.

They usually dump 1,000 to 1,200 gallons of water at a time and plan on working at the rink a couple of times this week, with freezing temperatures expected to continue, he said.

Besides helping create a resource for the public, Minkowsky said the visits have provided the department training opportunities for new firefighters to operate the equipment.

City Manager Scott Morelli said Tuesday that the addition of the ice rink makes the Waterfront Park a four-season venue.

“Winter ice skating is something that we haven’t been able to fully offer,” he said.

Morelli said the city tried putting an ice rink in the park during the 2010-2011 winter season by filling up a naturally occurring pond, but it didn’t hold very well without a liner. He said there wasn’t much of an effort to maintain it, and the rink saw little use.

The following winter was too mild to maintain a rink, so this has been the first year with consistent ice, Morelli said.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s already been a positive, well-utilized asset down there,” he said.

Joe Gould of Life Community Church said he wanted to work on the rink, because he used to make ice rinks for his son’s youth hockey league in Dover-Foxcroft 20 years ago.

Once the ice has been established with a couple of layers, water needs to be added to the rink during the winter to maintain the smooth surface, he said.

The churches also purchased the 38-foot by 96-foot liner needed to initially hold the water and plan on continuing the work in subsequent years.

“My hope is to do it as long as I’m alive, as long as I’m taking air in,” Gould said. “We all need to give back to the community more.”

Jennifer Polley, a member of Grace Community Chapel’s outreach committee, said her church wanted to do something for community by creating the ice rink.

She contacted City Hall and found out that Gould and his church were also interested in helping out.

“It was a really great collaboration between all the groups,” she said. “It went really smoothly.”

Polley said her church is planning a community event at the ice rink, with food and drinks, sometime in February.

Gould hopes that someday there will be a couple ice rinks down there, one for hockey and one for free skating.

“I kind of have a dream of turning this into a winter festival in Gardiner down the road,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll play it by ear.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]