Cass to become year-round rec. facility

March 5, 2010
By

David Taber

Gov. announces additional $1 million for rink

ROXBURY—Less than 48 hours after plans were presented for $450,000 in improvements to Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Rink, Gov. Deval Patrick on Feb. 19 announced an additional $1 million to turn the open-air rink into a year-round, multi-use recreation facility.

About a half-mile from Egleston and Jackson squares—on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Washington Street—the Cass has been left in disrepair for over 20 years. It has a canopy-like roof and walls at either end, but is open on the sides.

The Cass was originally an ice rink, and was later used as a roller rink—the use the improvements will continue. Its fate has, over the years, often been discussed in conjunction with long-standing plans to build a new permanent home for Jamaica Plain’s Kelly ice rink in Jackson Square.

There is “about to be a Melnea Cass Center…a year-round facility…I feel blessed as governor to be able to support this project,” Patrick said, speaking at the Feb. 19 event at the Cass announcing the new funding.

The conversion of the Cass to a four-season facility is expected to be completed by next fall according to press materials.

Two days prior to the governor’s announcement, at a Feb 17 community meeting at the Shelburne Community Center, state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) officials announced plans to fix the roof and repair the roller-rink’s surface, among other improvements. Those improvements would have left the rink open and it would have functioned as a three-season facility, closing in the winter, DCR officials said.

The new center will be available for other sports and activities in addition to roller skating, officials said. Soccer, rugby, tennis, football and dance classes were among the possibilities mentioned at the Feb. 17 and Feb. 19 events.

A representative from Boston Derby Dames, a roller-derby league, said at the Feb. 17 meeting that the league might be interested in renting the renovated facility for practices. And Jomo King—son of longtime Boston activist and former state Rep. and mayoral candidate Mel King—said he has a donation of 75 pairs of in-line skates and 75 helmets lined up to begin a community skating program at the refurbished rink.

DCR Commissioner Rick Sullivan described the project as “one of the very few” facility improvement projects DCR plans to undertake this year.

While the majority of the over 70 meeting attendees at the Feb. 17 meeting expressed some degree of enthusiasm for improvements to the rink, there was also a strong sense that the neighborhood wants to see it turned into a year-round recreation facility.

Local elected officials state Rep. Gloria Fox, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and City Councilor Chuck Turner, all of whom attended the Feb. 17 meeting and the Feb. 19 announcement, said they had expressed the same concerns to DCR.

“The elected officials have all come to the conclusion that a four-season state-of-the-art facility is what we are looking for,” said Fox. While the rink is technically in state Rep. Liz Malia’s district, Fox said, it has always been an issue for her because she lives down the street.

Malia attended the Feb. 19 announcement but not the Feb. 17 meeting.

While Sullivan said at the Feb. 17 meeting that he was committed to finding funding to turn the rink into a year-round facility, elected officials told local residents to get ready for a long effort.

“It isn’t just up to the commissioner to work his magic…It is going to be up to us to do the advocacy,” Chang-Díaz said at the meeting.

Elected officials and DCR staffers repeatedly urged audience members to sign up for a new Friends of the Cass group to support programming at the renovated center and to advocate for more funds for the rink. A previous Cass Friends group “has not been active for three or four years,” Turner said.

But the funds-advocacy effort was pretty much over by the time Alfreda Harris, chair of the Shelburne board and former director of the community center, was done talking. She made a direct appeal to Patrick’s director of community affairs, Ron Bell, to speak to the Governor about finding funding for the rink.

Bell—one of many at the meeting who grew up in the area and remembers going to the Cass in his youth—told the Gazette he called the governor Thursday morning.

The fate of the Cass, which was originally an ice rink, has long been tied with that of the Kelly ice rink in Jamaica Plain. The Kelly rink’s permanent home on the Jamaicaway was torn down in the 1990s and a temporary rink installed on the Southwest Corridor near the Stony Brook T Station. The Kelly last year received close to $ 1 million in improvements from the state intended to keep it operating for at least 10 more years.

Non-profit developer Urban Edge has been working on plans to build a new Kelly rink at a parcel it owns in Jackson Square for years—a plan that has sparked some controversy because of the condition and proximity of the existing Cass.

Urban Edge President Mossik Hacobian previously told the Gazette he envisions the renovated Cass and the new Kelly as part of a cluster of youth recreation facilities on the JP/Roxbury border.

City Councilor Turner echoed that idea at the Feb. 19 announcement. The Kelly Rink’s current home is “a 10-minute ride” from the Cass, he noted. And Urban Edge is in the midst of a study to determine if it is feasible to build a rink that could be maintained by renting the space and still be open for community use a significant amount of the time, he said. [See “Urban Edge files plans for housing” at JamaicaPlainGazette.com.]

Maintaining the Cass as a year-round “rink without ice is a practical, appropriate decision,” Turner said. “For those who want ice, don’t see this as your desires being defeated.”

Hacobian and others have estimated a new ice rink would cost about $12 million.

Hacobian and at least two members of the JP group Friends of Kelly Rink attended the Feb. 17 meeting and Hacobian was at the Feb. 19 event.

JP and Roxbury “have fought together for resources several times,” said Fox, who represents much of Roxbury, told the Gazette at the Feb. 17 meeting. The communities fought together to stop the proposed construction of an extension of Interstate 95 where the Southwest Corridor Park now stands.

“The reason we are able to be here today is because of all the people who never gave up,” Malia said at the Feb. 19 event. “We lost the Kelly and the Cass, but so many of you over so many years never gave up.”