New London - To Alicia Matula, skating downtown with her daughter and her two friends Saturday felt a little like joining a New London boosters club, spending some positive energy in the chill night air to help enliven the city she calls home.
"It's a good, healthy activity, gives people a chance to get out and mingle with each other, and it's ideal for economic development," Matula said, taking a break on the sidelines as the three girls, ages 12 and 13, glided past her among dozens of other skaters.
The new rink, a collaboration of New London Main Street, the city and several local sponsors, officially opened Saturday with the cutting of a red velvet ribbon by Mayor Martin Olsen and Main Street President Tony Silvestri. The opening ceremony was part of the city's annual Celebration of Lights and Song festivities, along with a carol sing, Christmas tree lighting, skating dance party, live bands and school chorus performances and arrival of Santa by firetruck. Dancers from Eastern Connecticut Ballet turned the glass-enclosed stairway adjacent to the parking garage into a multi-tiered stage for selections from "The Nutcracker."
Between the ribbon cutting and the first official public skating sessions, two local skating groups demonstrated their very different styles for the hundreds of onlookers surrounding the rink.
The Southeastern Connecticut Seahawks hockey team charged and maneuvered across the rink, shooting the puck between goals at either end.
Contrasting the hockey players' head-to-toe uniforms with helmets, neck guards, chest guards, gloves and other gear, short, sleek skating dresses were the costume of choice for Courtney Studwell and Alyssa Smelser of Colchester and Lauren Watson of Waterford. The three members of the Norwich Figure Skating Club spun and jumped on the ice to selections from "The Nutcracker" and a tune by Sting.
Studwell said the rink's synthetic ice, which is coated with a vegetable-based lubricant, took a bit of getting used to.
"It's pretty good, for plastic," she said. "It's almost like ice."
Others seemed to take to the surface immediately. Matula said her daughter's two friends had never been on ice skates before Saturday, but found the synthetic ice easy to learn on.
"They did perfect," she said. "They said it was like skating on roller blades."
Brian Mayo of Waterford, wearing a Santa Claus cap as he skated with his eight-year-old daughter Marissa, said the new rink is a great addition to downtown.
"It's great to see this for New London," he said.
"I like it," added Marissa, her feet clad in size 3 pink rental skates, one of 150 pairs available.
Her mother Michelle, watching from rinkside, was excited to see the activity in the town where she grew up.
"I haven't seen this many people in downtown New London in a long time," she said. "It's bringing some life down here."
Silvestri, too, was very pleased both by the turnout of skaters - about 150 in the first hour - and the many spectators who just showed up to watch.
"The whole purpose is to bring people downtown," he said.
With purchases at 10 downtown stores and restaurants, shoppers receive $1 off coupons for rink admission. The Garde Arts Center is also offering discounts on event tickets with a rink receipt, Silvestri said.
The rink was paid for with a $106,000 loan from the city that will be repaid over five years with rink revenues and sponsorship income, Silvestri said. The synthetic surface was chosen, he said, because it is relatively inexpensive to maintain and operate.
"It has a 30-year life," he said.