Northern Exposure Puts City of Houston on Ice

Southerners lace up and glide into outdoor sports of Great White North

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OK, Rockefeller Plaza it's not. But that hasn't stopped Houston's ''Miracle on Main Street,'' a temporary outdoor skating rink in a city where residents generally prefer their ice in glasses of lemonade.

Nor did it keep up to 150 people an hour from stepping up to rent skates and glide across the ice-covered corner of a downtown parking lot last weekend.

But building an outdoor ice rink in a city where baseball is played indoors because of the heat and mosquitoes is just the tip of the iceberg. Houston also has a hockey team, four indoor ice rinks, half-a-dozen fur-coat dealers, scrawny bundles of firewood for sale at convenience stores, and a growing number of bagel bakeries.

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From popular cuisine to outdoor activities, Houston is beginning to feel suspiciously like New York.

And it's not just Houston. The rest of the Sun Belt is also giving a warm welcome to pastimes whose roots come from well above the Mason-Dixon line. Take hockey, for example. Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and Tampa Bay, Fla., all sport professional hockey teams, and their teams draw more fans than many in the Great White North.

The Houston Aeros set a league record for season-ticket sales in its second year, though it is an International Hockey League Franchise - a minor league without the prestige of the National Hockey League. The Aeros rivaled the departing Houston Oilers football team in merchandising, with more than $1 million in sales in its first season.

The credit - or blame - for this flurry of interest in all things Northern lies with recent population shifts from North to South, says Ron Nixon, an editor with Southern Exposure, a magazine produced by the Institute of Southern Studies in Durham, N.C.

''A lot of this is virgin territory,'' says Mr. Nixon, who adds that he is particularly fond of the bagel's migration to the South. ''You have people coming in from different areas. There's a real demand for those sorts of things.''

As as result, he says, Atlanta and Miami are joining New York as hot spots of the music world and filmmakers are increasingly shooting in Dixie.

And - in a city with an average winter temperature of 65 degrees - the Greater Houston Skating Council is enjoying its 13th year.

Mary Ann Carroll, administrative officer for the council, says about half the ice skaters she knows are originally from Northern states. But she attributes much of the sport's growing popularity to the recent Olympics and to Tara Lipinski, a local teen who won the ice-skating championship at the 1994 Olympic Festival.

The Downtown District, the business group supporting the ice rink, is counting on that wave of popularity to help it break even on the $300,000 cost of laying nearly 18,000 feet of underground pipe and operating three generators around the clock until New Year's Day.

But Nixon says there's no need to worry that the South will soon resemble Yankee territory. ''I think the overall feel of the [Southern] culture is too strong for that to happen,'' he says. ''I think it's more likely that these things will take on the characteristics of the city and will have a uniquely Southern flavor.''

That would begin to explain last season's Elvis Night at the Houston Aeros game.

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