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Downtown ice rink is fun . . . free Number of skaters up significantly

The Cabrera family can't get enough of downtown Buffalo's Rotary Rink.

A.G. Cabrera, an engineer who brought his family to Buffalo from the Philippines, discovered the outdoor rink last week while leaving his office near Main Street's Fountain Plaza and decided to bring his wife and two children for a whirl around the ice.

"We've been here every day since," he said smiling as his daughter, Jeanelle, 6, and son, Geadge, 4, skated effortlessly around the rink while his wife, Jean, snapped photos on a digital camera. "It's great for us," Cabrera said. "We can't afford a lot."

They're not the only fans of the free downtown skating rink.

The city-owned ice rink has logged what is believed to be the largest number of group reservations in its 18-year history.

"We're having a particularly good year, with a big increase in groups, especially school groups," said Steven L. Joseph, director of marketing for Buffalo Place, which handles rink operations for the city.

Since the rink opened on Nov. 23, 117 groups of 25 or more have either visited the outdoor rink, or reserved ice time. That compares to 88 groups for all of last winter.

"We're putting a lot of sweat equity to make it a good experience and grow attendence every year," Joseph added.

Group totals for the three previous full seasons were 63, 56 and 41, respectively.

The free public skating rink does not log the number of individual skaters, but instead makes annual attendance estimates via group reservations. Rink personnel said the 130-by-80-foot ice surface, which can comfortably hold 125 skaters, has seen capacity crowds on several recent weekends.

Zach Cantie, 18, a Hilbert College student from Lancaster said he has noticed the growing crowds, particularly on weekends.

For years, he has come to skate at the downtown rink with his family.

Wednesday, he brought three of his friends from Hilbert "just 'cause it's outside and it's a nice day and it's free," Cantie said.

"College budget," Alissa Hulbert, 18, chimed in.

Another indicator of seasonal success is skate rentals and concession sales, which have seen an upward glide.

"The success of Rotary Rink is further confirmation of Buffalo's four-season appeal and I thank Buffalo Place for their excellent management of this downtown attraction," said Mayor Byron W. Brown.

The $4.5 million rink, which converts to a large water feature in warm weather months, debuted in January 1991. The Rotary Club of Buffalo raised about $500,000 to make the mostly publicly funded venture a reality and received naming rights for its efforts.

The city hired private firms to run the facility during its first seven seasons, then contracted with the nonprofit Buffalo Place in 1998 to handle rink and fountain duties. Buffalo Place later had skate rentals and concessions added to its responsibilities.

"We want it to be a real gem for downtown. For a lot of the suburban groups, skating at Rotary Rink will be their first, or one of their few impressions of downtown Buffalo, so we work hard to get it right," Joseph said.

The rink is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is closed Mondays. Skate rentals cost $2 for kids younger than 13, and $3 for ages 13 and older. Groups of 25 or more can rent skates for $1.

March 15 will be the final day of skating at Rotary Rink for the 2008-09 season.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com and mbecker@buffnews.com

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