Mendota Heights, SSP, WSP consider future regional hockey venues


South St. Paul’s Wakota Civic Arena could receive more than $2 million in renovations if plans pass a referendum next year. (file photo)

If passion alone could build hockey arenas, then northern Dakota County would likely be home to some magnificent ice.

The city councils holding the purse strings, however, will tell you that in reality they must balance the appeal of their facilities in an increasingly competitive marketplace with design disputes, bond issuances, equipment replacement schedules and a litany of other pricey and headache-inducing details.

In South St. Paul, the council recently approved plans for $2 million in spending to upgrade Wakota Civic Arena’s mechanical systems and expand locker rooms and bathrooms in an effort to increase the marketability of the 50-year-old facility. Those plans will go before residents in a referendum early next year.

The Mendota Heights City Council, however, declined an offer from West St. Paul to participate in a task force that would explore options for replacing West St. Paul’s structurally-troubled arena after its anticipated closure in 2016, despite a strong show of support from residents at the Mendota Heights council’s Aug. 6 meeting.

The council explained that while desire for a new hockey facility--particularly one located in Mendota Heights--seems strong, such a major public offering could drive up tax rates and create further conflict for the city down the line.

‘A few problems’ for Wakota

The South St. Paul City Council reviewed final plans for the Wakota Arena remodel in its Aug. 5 meeting. The project would enlarge locker rooms, add bathrooms and replace the Freon refrigerant system used to freeze the facility’s two ice sheets with a more modern ammonia-based system, as well as other mechanical and aesthetic upgrades.

The arena was originally named the Cow Palace when private investors built it in 1963, and was renamed after the city bought the arena in 1977 for $375,000. The last major renovations at Wakota took place in 1997, when the second ice sheet was added.

At the meeting, some council members expressed concern the renovation plans were more expensive than needed. The city council already sent the plans back to the architect to trim cost estimates by around $250,000 in April, and Council member Dan Niederkorn said at the Aug. 5 meeting he still found the current price too much.

“Everyone here knows I eat, sleep and breath hockey, and I love Wakota Arena,” Niederkorn said. “But I have a few problems with this scenario.”

Niederkorn said he believed new features such as a heated viewing area were unessential and pushed the total cost of project--$2.2 million at the latest estimate--beyond what he considered responsible spending.

“These kinds of things bother me, because I don’t see how this is a need we have in the city of South St. Paul,” Niederkorn said.

Council member Chris Lehmann echoed Niederkorn’s frustration, but stopped short of withholding his support for the plans. Lehmann said he’d hoped to keep the final cost of the project under $2 million.

“I’m going to vote for it tonight, because eventually it’s going to go to the voters for a decision anyhow, but I have some real concerns about what the voters are going to do with this when they see it out there in terms of what’s going to happen with the additional dollars we need to spend in there,” Lehmann said. “I think we could have sharpened our pencils a little better.”

Council member Lori Hansen defended the plans, however, saying it was important to consider the arena’s appeal to potential users as well as its basic functionality.

“I believe that it’s important to stay competitive out in the market place, and I believe the upgrades to Wakota will help keep it competitive,” Hansen said. “I think it would be a great enhancement to the community because Wakota Arena is a shining spot in our community and it brings a lot of people in, and I think it’s important to put our best foot forward.”

Council member Tom Seaberg added that in his opinion, the potential renovations were an opportunity to consider the marketability of the arena and the city. Seaberg said he considered Wakota Arena the capstone of South St. Paul’s parks and recreation system, and niceties built in at this stage could be a key to Wakota’s continued use and the community’s appeal in years to come.

“I think we’re at a real interesting crossroads,” Seaberg said. “We’re trying to carve out our little piece of the market place so we can stay viable for the future. This gives us the best opportunity to move forward.”

The council eventually voted 6-1 to approve the plans, with Niederkorn dissenting. The renovations are scheduled to go to public referendum for a final decision in February 2014.

Replacing WSP arena

For the West St. Paul City Council, renovating its local ice arena is no longer feasible. Built in 1972, the West St. Paul Ice Arena lacks adequate seating and locker room space and also needs a new coolant system. The key sticking point, however, is the arena’s decrepit roof that was at risk of major failure until outside groups stepped up to pay for patchwork repairs last year. Given the list of repairs, the council has deemed it better to start over than keep the current structure on life support. The ice arena is scheduled to shut down in 2016, barring any major problems that would force closure before then.

Instead, the West St. Paul Council has proposed a task force composed of representatives from nearby communities as well as School District 197 to consider prospects to build a new arena to house the teams and organizations that rely on the West St. Paul Ice Arena. The group’s top priority would be participating in and reviewing a study by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission that would examine current and future demand for an arena and lay out rough cost estimates and financing options.

The proposed task force would assign weighted votes to participating entities, with West St. Paul and Mendota Heights each holding 40 percent stakes, ISD 197 holding 10 percent, Sunfish Lake holding 6 percent and Eagan, Lilydale and Mendota all holding less than 5 percent control. ISD 197 representatives have already said the district has no interest in paying for, operating or maintaining an ice area, but it may be able to supply the land.

Looking for a solution

The Mendota Heights City Council, however, voted not to participate in the task force in its Aug. 6 meeting after holding a public hearing on the issue. Dozens of residents attended the hearing, speaking overwhelmingly in favor of participating in the study.

Karla Gotham, a Mendota Heights resident and mother of four, said she would support a new ice arena in Mendota Heights because it would make it easier for her children to participate in hockey. Gotham said her oldest daughter plays hockey now, but finding open times at arenas around the area has made her practice schedule erratic.

“The schedule is really awful because you’re getting ice time wherever you can,” Gotham said. “It’s just a really hard thing.”

Gotham was followed at the podium by Joe Henry, scheduler for the Sibley Area Youth Hockey Association. Henry said he agreed with Gotham, saying his organization struggled to find ice time now and the problem would grow exponentially worse when West St. Paul’s area closes.

“We’re already using three rinks,” Henry said. “We literally will be using 10 different rinks, and we’re going to be skating at 6:30 in the morning and 10:15 at night, which for school kids is just is not a good solution.”

More to worry about

Council members Mike Povolny and Liz Petschel countered the popular support by saying while an ice arena would be a crowd-pleaser, the council’s main concern should be the financial considerations.

“Hockey rinks are a financial burden to the cities,” Povolny said. “The reality of it is, where does the money come from, and who do we tax?”

Petschel said her concern about the arena was fueled in large part by the hardships of the Vadnais Heights Sports Complex. Completed in 2010, the 200,000 square-foot facility features two ice sheets and an indoor artificial-turf field, but has consistently fallen short of revenue projections. The Vadnais Heights City Council eventually voted to call the facility a loss and withdraw its ownership stake, and as a result sustained the city’s bond rating was downgraded.

“I’m really struggling with what is the right thing to do,” Petschel said. “It really isn’t as much to do with hockey as it is our responsibility to the rest of the residents of Mendota Heights.”

Despite these concerns, Council member Ultan Duggan suggested the council should at least participate in the task force to gather more information on the prospect--a move he called “a no-brainer.” Duggan also likened the potential arena to the city’s parks and trails system, since both are amenities subsidized with taxpayer money.

“We don’t seem to mind that as much,” Duggan said.

However, Mayor Sandra Krebsbach said participating in the task force would signal commitment from Mendota Heights and could set the city up for trouble later on.

“I know you kind of want to push us—‘Do it, if you care, you’ll do it’—but we’re looking at a whole mix of things,” Krebsbach said to the audience. “My view tonight is that we don’t participate in the task force, because that’s starting down a road, and it’s going to become defensive and argumentative.”

The council voted against participation on a 3-2 vote, with Council members Duggan and Steve Norton voting in favor. After the vote, Krebsbach thanked residents for their input and added that the vote didn’t preclude Mendota Height’s participation in other hockey facilities in the future.

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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