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Ice Skating evolves (but still thrives) in North County

Ice skating coach Becky Kern-Ryan (left) teaches fundamentals to a class of pint-sized beginners at the Ice Zone in Hazelwood.

Like me and many other NoCo natives of a certain age, Ferguson resident Becky Kern-Ryan grew up ice skating at the North County Recreation Complex on Redman Road. She got her first pair of ice skates for Christmas when she was 11, and before long, she had far surpassed us “casual skaters” (who showed up mostly to meet boys) and started competing in local meets.

“Over time, I became really involved with the synchro teams at North County,” Kern-Ryan says, referring to the sport of synchronized figure skating where anywhere from eight to 32 skaters perform what’s essentially a dance recital on ice. By age 18, she was not only competing as a synchro skater. She and a friend were also coaching beginner teams at the rec center – despite the fact that interest in ice skating in North County seemed to be waning.

“For a while, we moved over to [U.S. Ice Sports in] Fairview Heights because it was just more active over there,” Kern-Ryan, 33 and now a mother of three, says.

In fact, the number of skaters at North County Rec Complex had dropped off so dramatically in recent years that St. Louis County closed the rink in spring 2008. Its final season drew around 2,000 skaters between October and March, as well as a budget deficit of $160,000.

“People don’t think about it, but the cost of maintaining an ice rink is outrageous,” says Ken Daniels, manager of the Dellwood Soccer Complex, which stopped icing its rink way back in 1983. “All the compressors, the Zamboni…it’s easy to see why a lot of rinks have closed. And not just in North County.”

Daniels recalls the Ice Chateau that used to be on Larimore Road in the 1970s. For a time, the city of Hazelwood also maintained an outdoor rink at White Birch Park, but that was closed in the mid-80s and later converted to a BMX/skate park.

Since the 1990s, the St. Louis area has lost a total of three ice rinks. Today, just two remain in North County: the recently renovated facility at Florissant’s James Eagan Civic Center and the Ice Zone at Hazelwood Mills, where Kern-Ryan now coaches and the St. Louis Blues hold their practices.

Both rinks have had a busy season thus far, offering public and private sessions and skating instruction. The Ice Zone, in particular, has served as the primary training facility for a number of competitive young skaters.

“Having the Blues here really draws people in,” Kern-Ryan says of the Hazelwood rink, where former Ukranian pairs skating champion, Olga Vavilova, is also a coach. “We’re especially busy now, with the Olympics coming up and so many kids getting skates for Christmas.”

And the North County Rec Complex – what’s happening there these days? Following an extensive $1.8 million renovation, the center’s old ice rink is now home to several basketball courts, a volleyball court, a two-lane walking track and new community meeting rooms, all of which are about to be officially unveiled next weekend. I stopped by today and the place is gorgeous!

If you want to see for yourself, attend the open house on Saturday, February 20, from 1-5pm, at 2577 Redman Road, 63136.

You also still have plenty of time to take in some ice skating before winter is over. The Ice Zone has public sessions seven days a week – $5.50 per person plus $2.50 skate rental. Call (314) 227-5288 for specific schedules. The Eagan Ice Rink is also open seven days a week, with admission ranging from $1.50 to $4. For more info, call (314) 921-4470.

Where there was once an ice rink, the North County Rec Complex now boasts a brand new multi-sport facility, which officially opens on February 20.

Hidden Jewels of the Riverview Bluff

A secret driveway leads to this 1.2-acre, two-house haven on Lookaway Drive, on the edge of the bluffs near Riverview and Glasgow Village.

In most cities, a house with a hilltop location and a beautiful water view would be considered real estate gold. But as we all know, St. Louis is…special. That’s why one of the area’s best-kept secrets remains just that, and why, if you told someone you were moving to Riverview, they would probably think you’re nuts. But ah, what treasures await in this gorgeous little corner of North County.

Perched high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi, the vintage homes on and around Lookaway Drive are truly architectural gems. Most date from the 1920s and 30s, coinciding with the growth of the Riverview Gardens and Glasgow Woods subdivisions, but some – like 11152 Lookaway, which is currently for sale – date back to the 1800s.

Resting on more than an acre of lush, very private property that was originally deeded to one Isabella Chitwood before the Louisiana Purchase, the house is like a place lost in time. Built just prior to the opening of the Chain of Rocks Water Works (those cute little buildings in the river), it’s surrounded by land once owned by Dr. William Carr, the first mayor of St. Louis, and Amadee Valle, a Missouri legislator and close friend of Abraham Lincoln.

A Glasgow Village brochure from the 1950s. Credit: Lori Campbell

Of course, from 1927 through 1977, the house shared its lovely bluff view with the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park (later known as Fun Fair Park), a once bustling destination whose rides, roller rink and massive swimming pool many St. Louisans still fondly remember. But during the 1950s, it was nearly swallowed by redevelopment, as William Glasgow’s adjoining “Bienvenue Farm” gradually became the sprawling collection of modest ranch homes known as Glasgow Village.

Much has changed in the area since then. Though most of the houses on the bluff still radiate their unique charm and a handful of Glasgow Village’s original homeowners still remain (and remain active), white flight has opened the door for an increase in poverty and rentals, spurring St. Louis County to identify the community as “changing” – essentially stable but with “emerging signs of trouble in specific areas.”

I hope I’m not alone when I say this, but man, we are crazy to let this happen. The Riverview bluff’s quaint winding streets, tucked with enchanting, one-of-a-kind homes, remind me of the fabulous canyon hillsides in Los Angeles – except that here, you also get a view of one of the grandest rivers in the world.

I think it’s a crime to let this area deteriorate, especially when you consider that exceptional older houses and estate-style properties can be found all around the Bellefontaine/Chambers/Riverview corridor. Talk about an opportunity for some bold, creative redevelopment, building on the area’s existing assets and potential for eco-tourism! (Green homes, anyone? Bob Cassilly’s wondrous recycled Cementland is right next door.)

It was natural beauty that attracted early landowners here in the first place, inspiring them to build such captivating houses. With a little focused effort, particularly from those who claim to love this area so much, why couldn’t it draw a new wave of progress now? Why walk away from a part of town that still has so much to offer?

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It’s Eagle Watching Time in NoCo

Come to Fort Belle Fontaine on January 23 for an up-close experience with both bald eagles and North County's frontier history. Credit: Greg Wacker

Fort Belle Fontaine Park is a magical place any time of year, but this Saturday, the frontier-era former military post will also be a bird watcher’s wonderland. Offering sweeping views of the Missouri River, where many bald eagles do their winter fishing, the park will host well-known birder Kraig Paradise and experts from the World Bird Sanctuary.

Visitors will be able to see a live eagle and other birds of prey up close. They’ll also have a chance to view migrating eagles through telescopes and take a guided three-mile nature hike through historic Fort Belle.

Lewis and Clark camped here in both 1804 and 1806. The park is also home to a number of architectural treasures, including the (allegedly haunted) Grand Staircase built by WPA crews in the 1930s. If the river is low, you might even have a chance to see the actual Belle Fontaine, or “beautiful fountain,” a lovely underground spring that flows into the Missouri.

Saturday’s event is sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of Fort Belle Fontaine Park. It’s free and open to the public, January 23, 11am-2pm, at 13002 Bellefontaine Road, 63138.