They call it the Freezeway.
The name gives you a fair idea about the project Nick Jensen is imagining for the Greenway, the grassy stretch along the Red River known for its natural feel and well-traveled paved paths. Jensen and a team of collaborators newly funded by a major grant intend to revamp those trails for winter use by converting them to seasonal ice-skating routes.
The result would be one of the longest ice rinks in the country, Jensen says, and while the concept is still just half-frozen, it just won some big support in the form of a Knight Cities Challenge grant worth more than $140,000.
Jensen, who is the director of development at the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, sees a skating path as a natural fit for Grand Forks.
“The things you joke about in North Dakota is how cold and how flat it is here,” he said.
The Freezeway won’t just be an icy bike path. Jensen said the project’s backers will build out a temporary rink structure much like those found in wintry backyards across the region. Skaters should be able to glide along the river as soon as this coming winter. The first stretch of Freezeway will probably be no longer than 600 yards, Jensen said, possibly featuring some looping sections to keep things interesting. By the winter of 2018-19, skaters may have as much as 2.8 miles of frozen trails to explore.
“Almost everyone in Grand Forks knows how to ice skate, it seems, but you don’t ever just see adults or college students just going out to skate on a rink because it tends to get kind of boring just going around and around in a circle,” Jensen said. “The idea is, this is almost like going on a walk through the woods. It’ll hopefully open up the Greenway in a new way and be something unique for Grand Forks.”
The skating path would be free of cost and open to all, he said. The exact routing of the rink has yet to be determined, though Jensen imagines city residents being able to strap on their skates and use the Freezeway to make their way to downtown shops and eateries. He said the project has yet to fully consult with people who use the winter Greenway for activities like walking, cross-country skiing and fat-tire biking, but intends to use their input when siting the rink.
There are similar skating paths already brought to life in Edmonton, Alta., where a feature now known as the Iceway is in its second winter. Winnipeg also has a skate path, though Jensen said that project includes stretches on river ice, a detail ruled out in Grand Forks due to heavy snowmobile use of the frozen-over Red River. Jensen said he fine-tuned the local concept by speaking with developers of the Edmonton project.
To address the issue of North Dakota’s short winter days, the path would be lighted for nighttime skating. A news release sent by Jensen stated that Grand Forks audiovisual company HB Sound and Light has partnered with the project to make that happen.
Initial thoughts for maintenance of the Freezeway considered using a Zamboni to groom the ice, but organizers scrapped that idea due to logistical concerns. Jensen said the current upkeep plan for the winding rink envisions an ATV with a plow on its front end and a sprayer on the back.
The first two years of the Freezeway’s operations will be entirely funded with private dollars and put on as a kind of “trial, no-risk thing” for the city of Grand Forks, Jensen said. If the upgraded path carves a niche in the winter recreation scene, he said, then the Freezeway organizers would donate the whole thing to the city in the hopes of keeping it going year after year.
Marathons and bonspiels
The Freezeway concept was one of 4,500 ideas submitted as part of the national challenge program, an annual Knight Foundation campaign that draws submissions for community-improvement projects from the 26 cities the foundation serves. The local project is one of 33 winners now funded by slices of a total funding pool of $5 million.
This is the third year of the challenge and the second time a Grand Forks concept pulled in funding. The city had a winning project in last year’s round with Pete Haga’s food truck, a bright yellow rig named New Flavors and rented to new Americans looking to sell their cultural dishes wherever they can roll. Haga won nearly $107,00 in grant funding for the truck, which is now up and running.
The Freezeway idea was one of three Grand Forks finalists that advanced to the last round of selection in this year’s challenge. The other two projects were submitted by Cynthia Shabb, executive director of the Global Friends Coalition and Corey Mock, a state representative and executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals.
Shabb was seeking funds to purchase a building to house functions of the coalition and other new American groups. Mock, much like Jensen, was looking to capitalize on the winter season. His idea was a four-day downtown street festival to take place in February.
The three finalists had different ideas, but they all shared in some way a common thread of building stronger community ties in Grand Forks. Jensen envisions the Freezeway thriving as a public asset used however locals see fit, whether that means ice skating marathons or an extra-large rink for “the longest bonspiel ever” for local curlers.
“We just see it as, ‘We’re going to create this and we want the community to embrace it,’ ” he said. “We’re not clever enough to think of all the great ideas that people in this community will have, so we want them to know this is for the community and hope it’s something it really enjoys.”