Parks department cooling off on ice arenas?

Ramsey County Parks and Recreation has created a task force to consider changes to the county’s 11 ice arenas. The county will have to make difficult decisions about the arenas in the next few years. North High senior hockey players faced off against Hill-Murray at a Section 4AA quarterfinal game in February at Ramsey County’s Aldrich Arena.  (file photo)
Ramsey County Parks and Recreation has created a task force to consider changes to the county’s 11 ice arenas. The county will have to make difficult decisions about the arenas in the next few years. North High senior hockey players faced off against Hill-Murray at a Section 4AA quarterfinal game in February at Ramsey County’s Aldrich Arena. (file photo)

Ramsey County studies future of its indoor rinks

With Ramsey County's ice arenas aging, usage patterns changing, and upgrades needed in the foreseeable future, the county is mulling over its options for the facilities.

To tackle the topic, the county formed its Arena Task Force, which has been getting resident input, and will make recommendations about what to do with the arenas.

The county operates 13 ice sheets at 11 arenas, and has one of the largest arena systems in the state.

"Operation of such a widespread system is rapidly approaching a critical point," the task force website reads. "The number of people who use our arenas is changing. Refrigerant mandates and aging infrastructure require the county to take a close, planful look at the future of the arenas."

The task force comes as a result of a new law which will force arenas to switch over to a new cooling method — a federal law will force the prohibition of the manufacture of R-12 refrigerant used in most of the arenas built prior to 10 years or so ago. That refrigerant, which is harmful to the environment, will no longer be available after 2020, and ice arenas will have to have new systems in place.

The cost of replacement of the R-12 refrigerant systems could cost roughly $2 to $3 million per arena, depending on the age of the arena in question.

By February 2016, the task force will create a priority list for the county's arenas that could lead to decisions about which ones get financial investments and upgrades down the road.

The task force will present a rough draft of recommendations to the County Board of Commissioners next month, and final recommendations in February.

Committee members include — in alphabetic order — Dan Galles, Mike McGraw, Debbie Montgomery, Don Mullin, county parks director Jon Oyanagi, North St. Paul City Council member Candy Petersen, Steve Reeves, Como Park High School activities director Mike Searles, Jason Sprague and Johnson High School boys hockey coach Steve "Moose" Younghans.

Some of the facilities are secure for the future — Vadnais Sports Center, Charles Schultz-Highland Arena and Aldrich Arena will remain functioning ice arenas. But others' futures are less certain.

Ramsey County Parks director Jon Oyanagi noted that the county had ceased operations at its Biff Adams Arena in St. Paul's Como neighborhood a few years ago. Usage had dropped, and the county board decided to close it, but then, it found a renter. Now, the Frogtown Curling Club rents it exclusively. Oyanagi said that could be one possible scenario for some other arenas.

Oyanagi notes that at the moment, the arenas as a whole are performing pretty well — they're being rented out, which helps cover operating expenses, if not the future cost of upgrading their refrigerant systems.

Not damning

The Arena Task Force's recommendations won't necessarily be damning to any specific arena, but instead will just take a pragmatic look at how to proceed with the facilities.

"It's better to be planful ahead of time than react right when it's happening" and the refrigerant is no longer manufactured, Oyanagi said. He noted that "a lot of the funding needed [for facility upgrades] takes years to put into place."

Harding High School's county-owned arena was built in 1975 and is reported to be in good condition, according to reports compiled for the Arena Task Force.

However, it's got the old coolant system, and is primarily used by Hill-Murray's girl's hockey program as well as Woodbury's hockey programs, according to Harding activities director Gerald Keenan.

"In Harding's hockey heyday the kids just had to go out the back door to play. ... Now, nobody's skating" on that ice sheet from Harding.

But, Keenan is optimistic about the rink — with it getting full use from suburban hockey players, he figures it will stay open.

And, he has a prediction that upcoming Harding students will begin to take a liking to ice skating.

"I think our Hmong parents, Somali parents, Hispanic parents ... are going to have their little kids skating," he predicts. "I think hockey will be back at Harding."

In the meantime, he figures some at Harding would love to be able to take it over and use it as an indoor athletics arena for other, non-ice sports.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Wally Wakefield can be reached at 651-748-7826 or at wwakefield@lillienews.com.


Input and feedback

A series of seven panel meetings are being held to gain input from Ramsey County residents regarding the future of the county’s ice arenas.

The last meeting takes place Monday, Nov. 23, at 6 p.m. at the Tamarack Nature Center, 5287 Otter Lake Road in White Bear Township.

The committee is looking at topics like who the county-owned arenas should serve, what the arena land would be used for if not for ice activities, and how to fund needed upgrades and operating expenses for the arenas.

Community members who are unable to attend but are interested in learning more or providing input can contact Sara Ackmann, director of arena and golf operations, at 651-748-2500 or sara.ackmann@co.ramsey.mn.us.

For more information about the task force, visit https://parks.co.ramsey.mn.us/Arenas/Pages/Arena-Task-Force.aspx.

 

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