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What to do with Neilson Reise Arena?

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council is facing off against the idea of what to do with the aging Neilson Reise Arena, a mainstay of Bemidji hockey players and figure skaters alike.

The council and city staff toured the nearly 50-year-old, city-owned building Monday, then spoke about what may lay ahead for it in a special work session.

In a memo to the city council, Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson said the area was valuable to the community. The Bemidji Figure Skating Club, Bemidji Youth Hockey and the Bemidji State University intramural program all use the arena -- not to mention private figure skating rentals and open skating.

"The Neilson Reise Arena is the only year-round ice arena in the area," Larson wrote. "It is highly used and the single sheet of ice is needed by the community."

The arena saw 2,536 usage hours in 2013 (about 106 days), not including open skate time, according to Parks and Rec data..

However, Larson also acknowledged the arena would cost the city more and more to maintain as it gets older.

"Going forward, an increase in operations and maintenance costs can be expected due to the age of the facility," she said.

The form of coolant used to keep the arena' ice frozen, R-22, depletes the ozone layer, is a greenhouse gas and when manufactured produces byproducts that contribute "significantly" to global warming, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA says production of R-22 must be phased out by 2020, so in addition to environmental concerns, finding an affordable supply of R-22 may become more difficult as the gas becomes more rare. About 1,000 pounds of R-22 leaks from the plant every few months, arena employees said -- gas the city must pay to replace at roughly $18 a pound.

There are also bumps in the ice that form because the dehumidifier doesn't work, holes in the insulation and inadequate locker room space, just to name a few of the building's other troubles. The arena is projected to have a total operating loss of about $103,700 in 2014.

At Monday's meeting, Councilwoman Nancy Erickson inquired after the ability of the Sanford Center, whose modern cooling plant uses ammonia rather than R-22, to potentially take over some of Neilson Reise's traffic. City and Sanford Center staff told her center only has ice during hockey season, not year-round as Neilson Reise does. Ice time there and everywhere else in Bemidji isn't easy to come by, especially during peak hours, they said.

"All the ice sheets in town right now ... are used, they're booked," Larson said.


To gain a more informed idea of what to do, Larson recommended the city hire engineering/surveying firm Stevens Engineers to evaluate the area. Stevens has engineers that specialize in arenas and previously did work on the Sanford Center. The evaluation will cost $9,300, Larson's memo said.

On Monday, the council voted to negotiate up to a $10,000 not-to-exceed limit for the potential contract with Stevens. If Stevens approves the limit on the amount of money it can charge the city, the two parties then will likely begin to draw up the contract.

The last time major renovations were done on the arena was in 2005 when the floor was replaced, Larson said.

"I think the council, the city, was aware it was nearing the end of its useful life," she said of the 2005 fixes to the arena. "They choose to keep it going because it was such a community benefit."