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Building the ice palace is 'a labor of love'
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The Winter Carnival ice palace is taking shape in downtown St. Paul. Volunteer tradesmen and women will work around the clock until Jan. 20, the deadline for completion. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
After weeks of delays in construction, the Winter Carnival ice palace is finally beginning to take shape in downtown St. Paul. That's thanks to the colder weather -- and to thousands of hours of labor donated by local trade unions.

St. Paul, Minn. — Dozens of workers show up at the ice palace site across from the Xcel Energy Center every day like clockwork -- except they don't punch in here. They're volunteers. Local bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and other skilled laborers are donating their time to build the ice palace. And even though it's volunteer work, it's not all fun and games.

"This is hard work. This is really hard work," says Tom Offner, a carpenter with Local 87.

Offner is helping to build the skating rink next to the ice palace.

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Image Volunteers do most of the work

"The blocks weigh about 500 pounds each. The lifts do the work for us, but we still have to push them around and shove them around, and it's heavy work," he says.

Offner has volunteered at least six days at the site this year. He's a veteran of ice palace building -- he also worked on the 1992 castle. Offner volunteers because he sees it as a way to use his skills to contribute to a community project, and as a way to showcase the work of skilled laborers. And he's not alone. Electrician Frank Gurney recently retired after 40 years in the business. He's now working on his third ice palace.

"To me, it's a labor of love. It's something to give back to the community what they've given us in the form of a good living. It's nice to be able to give them back something in return," Gurney says.

But there is an irony. Most of the volunteers working on the ice palace are available to do so because they're laid off during the slow winter construction season. So bricklayers are now laying huge blocks of ice, and the electricians are laying all the wires that will light up the flag poles and towers of the palace at night.

To me, it's a labor of love. It's something to give back to the community what they've given us in the form of a good living. It's nice to be able to give them back something in return.
- Electrician Frank Gurney

In the end, the volunteers will have contributed tens of thousands of hours of labor, mostly in freezing temperatures. But the volunteers keep warm by working.

"When you're busy, you stay warm. we wear layers and layers of clothes. It's not so bad," said Susan Elmer, an apprentice with the bricklayers union.

Monday was Elmer's first day at the ice palace, where she was torching the ice blocks together. She had to squeeze it in because, unlike many of the other volunteers, she's working full time. She's also a caulker in the bricklayer's union.

"It's kind of nice to volunteer to come down here and do it for the day. It's kind of exciting," Elmer says.

She is among more than 200 tradesmen and women who are volunteering their time at the site. Their work had been delayed because the ice at Lake Phalen wasn't thick enough. But now that the harvesting is well underway, crews are scrambling to meet a Jan. 20 deadline to complete construction. This week a third shift was added to the work schedule. That means construction will be non-stop until the ice palace is finished.

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