Vince Forte is a devoted Washington Capitals fan. He shares season tickets with some buddies. He had high hopes the Caps would win the first game of the series against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Alas, they lost 3-1.
"Pretty disappointing," he tells me.
But it didn't ruin his day. Not even close. Early that morning Forte had arrived at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena atop a hill in Southeast D.C. near Ballou High School. He spent the day working with contractors and volunteers who had come to fix everything from walls and wiring to bathrooms and landscaping.
At the end of the day, nearly 100 contractors and volunteers had donated materials and labor worth an estimated $200,000 to fix up the arena.
"I would say it was a happy, happy day," says Forte, CEO of GBA Associates, a Northern Virginia real estate development firm. Despite the Caps' loss.
The Fort Dupont rink and Saturday's renovation lie at the center of a happy urban saga. It begins in 1995 when Willem Polak, who grew up in Cleveland Park, heard that the National Park Service was planning to close down the ice rink at Fort Dupont Park. The arena had been built in 1976, and the Park Service figured it was too expensive to maintain. D.C. would lose its last rink.
Polak grew up skating on the C&O Canal, and his son was just starting to play hockey at St. Albans, which was trying to stay abreast of Gonzaga and other prep schools. He proposed a nonprofit take over the rink. The park service handed over the keys. Friends of Fort Dupont Arena has been operating the rink ever since.
"We started with 12 kids," Polak says. Now hockey teams from Georgetown and American University, St. Albans and Gonzaga, pay to play at night. "During the day we now serve an average of 7,000 children a year who come to skate and take classes."
Gabrielle McCarley comes for the synchronized skating classes. Her mother, Carleen, is from Syracuse, N.Y., where skating is a local sport. Gabby takes classes during the winter and attends the two-week summer program. "Great program," Carleen McCarley says. "It fills a great need."
But the building needs work. A few months ago Forte, who sits on the arena's board of directors, suggested to Polak that they try to recruit contractors who could work on a "Christmas in April" house renovation to pool their energies into Fort Dupont.
"Why not help 7,000 kids rather than a couple of families?" he said.
Forte took Melissa Brown-Matthews, with Kramer Consulting in Georgetown, on a tour of the arena. She organized more than a dozen companies -- including Davis Construction, Gordon Contractors and Freestate Electrical -- to show up on Saturday. Gordon had shown up three weeks earlier to reconstruct and seal a leaky wall.
"They blew us away," says Forte. "The building will always need work, but it's good for awhile. I was feeling so good about what we had accomplished, even the Caps couldn't bring me down."
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.