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It’s rare that the early arrival of anything winter-related is cause for anything but complaint, but this year’s Meridian Winter Blast is likely to be an exception.

Except for the inaugural Winter Blast in January 2005, the extremely popular festival has been held in February each year. But the event will blow into Campus Martius Park a couple weeks ahead of its usual schedule this Friday through Sunday, bringing with it a variety of new attractions.

The date change was made so that Winter Blast would coincide with the second weekend of the North American International Auto Show. Through a new partnership with NAIAS, auto show attendees will have the opportunity to receive a hand stamp granting them free admission to Winter Blast. (The normal Winter Blast admission price is a donation of either $3 or three canned food items to Matrix Human Services.)

“I think it’s great that we’re going to have the chance of extending the stay of thousands of auto show guests who might have only gone to Cobo and seen the show,” says Winter Blast producer Jon Witz. “They’re going to have a strong reason to keep their car parked and walk over and enjoy some winter fun.”

That fun will be wide-ranging. As in past years, ice skating in Campus Martius will be free to Winter Blast attendees. Other popular returning activities will include marshmallow roasting and ziplining. But 2017 will also bring plenty of new attractions, including a tweak on the festival’s popular snow slide. This year’s Meridian Winter Slide will be snowless but will now offer a 40-degree drop beginning in a darkened tube, allowing riders to reach speeds of up to 20 mph.

“It’s going to be three seconds of absolute thrill where you’re not going to know when you’ll land,” Witz says. “It’s going to be awesome.”

The decision to drop the snow slide was in part a practical one. Due to warming temperatures, Witz says making snow for the old slide had become a challenge in previous years. He says the new slide “could be a solution for years to come.”

“Weather can’t stop us,” he says. “It’s going to have the thrill and there’s nothing Mother Nature can do.”

Ice creations

However, weather won’t stop Winter Blast from indulging in some spectacular works of ice art this year. The festival will feature a display of ice sculptures of Warner Bros. movie characters, including Wonder Woman, King Kong and a Lego Batman. But those sculptures are only the tip of the literal and metaphorical iceberg. The Bedrock Ice Bar just south of Cadillac Square will offer adult beverages served from a 16-foot bar made of ice, surrounded by tables and chairs carved out of ice. And on the south end of the festival, guests can wind their way through a 24-foot-by-36-foot ice maze.

So who do you call in to create these frozen wonders — and keep them from melting in above-freezing temperatures? At Winter Blast, 2005 World Ice Art Champion Chad Hartson is on the job. Hartson says he’ll use dry ice to protect character ice sculptures during the day and the ice bar will be protected inside a tent. Hartson was still developing a strategy to keep the ice maze in solid form.

Hartson, owner of Ice Creations of Napoleon, Ohio, has been sculpting ice for 20 years. He discovered his craft while in culinary school.

“One of the reasons that I went to culinary school was because I liked the creative part of it,” he says. “I liked the art of working with food. All that comes into play doing the ice sculptures.”

Hartson has taken on a broad variety of assignments in his career, including plenty that tap into his food experience. He recently worked as a food artist on the Food Network’s “Cake Wars.” Building an ice bar and an ice maze is hardly the most extreme assignment Detroit has handed him so far, however. He describes the seven life-size ice cars he sculpted for NAIAS last year as one of his favorite jobs — as well as the hardest.

“There’s just a lot that goes into building a car out of ice,” Hartson says.

Spotlight on Detroit

The festival also will feature a diverse array of Detroit musical talent including more than 40 acts, ranging from longtime favorites like blues vocalist Thornetta Davis to young talents like the soul-rock band Nina & the Buffalo Riders. Movement Electronic Music Festival’s DJs Thornstryker and Ryan Richards will perform at the ice bar on Friday and Saturday night, respectively.

Winter Blast music liaison Jaime Martin says the festival is a showcase for a singular moment in Detroit’s music scene.

“It seems in the last couple years that there’s a lot of new, fresh groups coming out that have blended styles together in a way that makes sense,” Martin says, citing performers like Nina and the Buffalo Riders and R&B vocalist Madelyn Grant. “It’s just a really exciting time to be a part of this music scene and see what’s developing within it.”

Beyond the music — and even the ice sculptures, slide and skating — organizers see Winter Blast as a unique annual showcase for a rapidly changing downtown Detroit itself. Witz says attendance can range up to 100,000 in warmer weather, and many attendees who might not otherwise come downtown are spreading positive words about the city as a result.

“Everybody ... is Tweeting their friends or sending out a post on their Facebook: ‘My God, Detroit looks so beautiful,’ ” he says. “I think we’ve played our role in the downtown transformation and we’ve really seen first hand a different festival backdrop each year. There’s always something progressing when we put on the event.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor based freelance writer.

Meridian Winter Blast

4-11 p.m. Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat. and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Campus Martius Park

800 Woodward, Detroit

Admission: $3 or three canned food items to Matrix Human Services

(248) 541-7550

winterblast.com

Food trucks revving up

Those seeking sustenance at Winter Blast will find a unique new way to fill their bellies: a food truck rally featuring a wide variety of meal options from eight local restaurants on wheels.

The selection will range from Beans & Cornbread’s southern-style barbecue to Bigalora’s gourmet pizza to the Mac Shack’s innovative spins on the macaroni and cheese formula. Winter Blast producer Jon Witz says that a food truck rally was “long overdue” at the festival, reflecting the growing popularity of food trucks in Metro Detroit.

One of the newest owners says Detroit’s food truck moment has only just begun. Troy resident Karen Kahn-Schultz and her two business partners will work their vegetarian food truck, the Nosh Pit, at Winter Blast. The Nosh Pit got started just five months ago, but Kahn-Schultz is already working to organize a group of 30 local food trucks as the Metro Detroit Food Truck Association. Kahn-Schultz has received mentoring and assistance from members of the Columbus-based Central Ohio Food Truck Association, which boasts 250 member trucks.

“If Columbus can have 250 trucks, we’re a bigger city,” she says. “We can have more.”

Kahn-Schultz is excited about bringing the food truck, which has mostly been seen in Troy, to its biggest Detroit event yet.

“This is our first really huge event where we actually have to bulk-buy everything ahead of time,” Kahn-Schultz says. “I’m just inviting all my friends to come because I have a feeling it’s going to be a phenomenal time.”

— Patrick Dunn

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