Rescue funds to keep Middletown holiday events alive, help city purchase ice rink

Holiday Whopla, a winter festival, is an economic driver downtown, according to organizers.

MIDDLETOWN — Just when it appeared Holiday Whopla, a winter festival in downtown Middletown, was skating on thin ice, it has been given new life.

“It was dead” is how Holiday Whopla coordinator Avinne Kiser described its future. “Completely dead.”

But on Tuesday night, City Council members voted unanimously on an emergency ordinance for the city to purchase an ice rink for $236,202 from Everything Ice Inc. and allow Holiday Whopla (pronounced who-plah), a volunteer organization, to operate the event for at least four years.

The money is coming out of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund, according to City Manager Paul Lolli.

Holiday Whopla is a two-month winter festival that includes ice skating, interactive light displays, igloos and Santa House in the downtown. As it has the last two years, Holiday Whopla will be held in downtown this year with the hopes of possibly finding a permanent home, either in Smith Park or after the city builds a park on top of a water basin on South Main Street, near the former Manchester Inn, Kiser has said.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

As part of the agreement, Everything Ice included a Zamboni machine and Holiday Whopla will raise the necessary funds to rent a chiller to make the ice, Kiser told the Journal-News after the meeting.

The company also agreed to purchase the skating rink back, if the city desires, for 50% during the first two years, according to the contract. Lolli said the city is continuing to negotiate the buy-back percentages.

The city had committed to financially support the holiday event in January, then appeared in recent City Council meeting to waver as the costs rose and the organization asked for more money.

Mayor Nicole Condrey said the “financial stability” of the organization was her biggest concern for initially not supporting the project.

Then last month, Kiser, who led Holiday Whopla its first two years, presented council with several letters of financial support from local foundations and businesses. There were letter from Sarah Nathan, executive director of the Middletown Community Foundation; Ken Cohen, CEO of Cohen Recycling; Sarah Kaup from the Arthur Harvey Foundation; Greg Martin from Martin Excavating; Angela Phillips, CEO of Phillips Tube Group and representatives from the Miriam G. Knoll Foundation.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Those organizations have given around $250,000 in donations and manhours the first two years, according to their letters of support. They all urged the city to purchase the rink.

Cohen said his company would provide a cargo container and allow Holiday Whopla to store its lights and ice rink in a warehouse.

Nathan called Holiday Whopla “a signature community event that generates pride, provides enjoyable entertainment for families, encourages spending at downtown businesses, and enhances quality of life.”

The MCF has pledged $18,000 to this year’s event, she wrote.

Kiser said the turning point in gaining council’s approval came when large and small Middletown businesses and the Middletown Community Foundation “made their voices heard.”

After reading those letters, Condrey said she looks at Holiday Whopla more as “a community service” than a business.

“It is good for the community in the end,” she said.

Vice Mayor Monica Thomas said the organizers are the kind of people who have “shown us a lot of resilience. They have a group of volunteers who don’t want to give up.”

Council member Zack Ferrell said Middletown needs these type of community events to attract residents and give residents reasons to live in the city.

After the meeting Kiser, and John Ferrando, vice president of the Holiday Whopla board, and Sharon Flagel-Burke, board treasurer, celebrated the council’s decision.

“It’s done, finally,” Kiser said, fighting back tears.

Ferrando added: “It’s a win for Middletown.”

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