Downtown Tacoma will miss Polar Plaza

From the Editorial Board

Kekai Cournoyer of Tacoma gets a helping hand up from mom Rene at Tacoma’s downtown Polar Plaza. 2015.
Kekai Cournoyer of Tacoma gets a helping hand up from mom Rene at Tacoma’s downtown Polar Plaza. 2015. The News Tribune

The same week Mayor Marilyn Strickland went on TV and made a case for why Tacoma should be considered a prime candidate for Amazon’s second headquarters, city officials dropped another surprise: One of Tacoma’s prime holiday attractions is leaving downtown this year.

For the past six years, Tollefson Square, the empty, concrete space wedged between Commerce Street and Pacific Avenue, has been transformed for several weeks into Polar Plaza, a skating rink that brought a Norman Rockwell feel to a city not always known for quaintness.

It wasn’t the ice rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center, but it was a downtown destination, a fact that many local businesses appreciated.

A seasonal ice rink wouldn’t be included on many Top 10 lists of Tacoma selling points. Losing it will certainly not factor into any make-or-break deal with a high-profile company such as Amazon. But it raises a timely question: if Tacoma starts providing fewer reasons for locals to spend time downtown, why would employees at a corporate headquarters want to hang out there?

For this year, Point Ruston will be the Polar Plaza’s new home. It’s a logical alternative. Parking is easier; shops and restaurants are more accessible on foot; and the chance of seeing the city’s hard urban frailties, such as homelessness, gets reduced to nearly zero.

Like a nice guy who doesn’t know how to dress well, downtown Tacoma lost out to the sleek and aesthetically pleasing development five miles away, a waterfront community that’s blooming in the footprint of the old Asarco smelter.

For some, it might conjure memories from the late ’60s and ’70s, when the Tacoma Mall was the shiny new toy that drew crowds away from downtown.

We’re glad Polar Plaza is coming back for another year. Ice skating meshes well with other regional favorites including Zoo Lights, Puget Sound Revels, the Theatre District Christmas tree lighting and First Night.

But the move to Point Ruston is temporary. City officials are conducting an analysis to determine where — if anywhere — city-sponsored ice skating can be held in the future.

Money troubles put Polar Plaza on thin ice. No one had signed up to sponsor this year’s rink, which means, with the exception of $73,000 raised last year, the city would be left paying a majority of the $250,000 tab for maintaining the seasonal rink. That is simply not sustainable.

Point Ruston will be underwriting the temporary rink this year and securing the sponsorships.

The city’s news release also said the surface at Tollefson Plaza was unsuited for optimal ice production and that the space was not adequate to accommodate a high-quality experience.

Indeed, Polar Plaza’s circumference was small, but participants came to be part of a festive community, not to train for competitive pairs skating.

The city is still deciding what to do with Tollefson Plaza over the holidays. Officials promise it will be something to attract visitors downtown.

It won’t be easy replacing an activity that made that dark, vacant square come to life like a made-for-television holiday special. But it’s a challenge we hope the city takes seriously.