FAIRBANKS — Ice Alaska is not the only group that wants to host the World Ice Art Championships next year.
The Tanana Valley Fair Association and Christmas in Ice each have their sights on the ice carving event. They will bid on a $1.7 million state grant designated specifically for an ice park, which the borough may soon appropriate. And while the nonprofit Ice Alaska has run the event for 22 years, several local ice carvers say it’s time to pass the torch to a new organization.
Ice Alaska offered to buy the ice park land from the Alaska Railroad Corp. last week for $4.1 million, counting on using the state grant.
But Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins wants to award it through a bidding process that will compare the business plans, infrastructure and economic sustainability of the groups.
Fair general manager Randi Carnahan says the fairgrounds are the best home for the event because they have the needed space, experience and volunteer power.
“When we look at the 100 acres of land we’re sitting on out here, it just makes sense to at least give it a run, with the knowledge we have,” she said.
Fair organizers have been mulling the idea for nearly 10 years and have been encouraged by the community, officials in Juneau and ice carvers to host the ice park, she said.
“I don’t think it has been a satisfying event for the carvers in recent years, which puts its world-class standing in jeopardy. If you don’t have the carvers, you don’t have an event,” Carnahan said.
They would use the $1.7 million for expanding electrical and plumbing systems as well as buildings, she said.
The two main drawbacks identified with the site, lack of shade and ice, are surmountable, she said. Single blocks can be carved in the shaded campground area while shades can be built for the multiblock carvings.
The fairgrounds would use ice from O’Grady Pond (at the current ice park) for the first year and ultimately dredge a pond, Carnahan said.
Christmas in Ice organizer Keith Fye argued the North Pole site (adjacent to the Santa Claus House) is most suitable for the event. That organization would use the grant to buy 27 acres near downtown North Pole, including an on-site gravel pit for ice, and build permanent facilities.
The biggest advantage over the other locations is superior ice, Fye said.
“Our ponds are dredged more frequently, we don’t have the algae and little snails (Ice Alaska) does,” he said.
He said trucking millions of pounds of ice to the fairgrounds on public roadways is not the best option.
He expects moving the event to North Pole would have an initial impact but would eventually be just as popular as the current location.
“Any one of us could duplicate all the events, it would just take a year to build it back up, two years tops,” Fye said.
Ice Alaska Chairman Dick Brickley couldn’t disagree more.
“I know how hard it was to do that over 25 years, to recreate that, nobody has any idea,” he said.
But two local ice carvers are advocating a move to the fairgrounds, saying Ice Alaska has been cutting corners with prize money, ice quality and facilities.
“It’s been somewhat of a struggle for the past 11 years,” said Steve Brice, who has participated in the event since 1990.
“The big gripe this year was for the four-man competition, we came in second place, with a $100 entry fee, the prize was $68, for a six-day event,” he said.
While artists aren’t in it for the cash, such low prize money has demoralized and even offended some of the participants, he said. A standard two-day competition offers about $3,500 for first place and $2,000 for second place, he said.
The ice has worsened over the past five years; the blocks were rougher and smaller than expected this year, he said.
“My thoughts are, if Ice Alaska doesn’t mend the level of treatment for the people who compete here, I will carve elsewhere,” Brice said.
His wife Heather, who has carved at the event since 1998, started a Facebook group for sculptors who want to move to the fairgrounds. She said the frustration was fairly widespread, especially among contenders for prize money.
Yet Joe Rimer, an ice carver from Florida, said he and his team were satisfied with the event and are eager to return. It was his first time, and he helped carve a 207-foot bar-top of ice, which set a Guinness World Record.
“I understand the criticism of the prize money,” he said. “But I know it takes a tremendous amount of resources to pull a project of this size together.”
Brickley agrees conditions worsened this year but said it was a one-time thing.
“The board made a conscious decision to cut back” because they might need money to shut down the park, he said.
They only offered a $5,000 purse this year, as opposed to $15,000-$20,000 in past years. The organization also pays for lodging, some travel expenses and gifts like sweatshirts. Ice quality suffered because Ice Alaska couldn’t afford to bail out the pond, Brickley said. The organization wants to fix both issues once it has financial security.
Contact staff writer Molly Rettig at 459-7590.