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Future on ice? Bemidji Youth Hockey, Bemidji school district ponder long-term facility plans

The Bemidji Community Arena; located on property adjacent to Bemidji High School; has been constructed in phases. In addition to the rink; thereare now two levels of seating; youth locker rooms; a lobby and concessions on both floors. MAGGI STIVERS | BEMIDJI PIONEER

BEMIDJI -- Six phases in, the Bemidji Community Arena boasts a state-of-the-art facility, with a stadium-esque rink, two floors for seating and concessions and a range of amenities including youth locker rooms and big-screen TVs.

Now, Bemidji Youth Hockey -- which owns and operates the arena -- would like to begin another phase of construction, one that would lay the foundations for a second sheet of ice.

"The entire building, the entire facility, is designed for the second rink. That's been our design since Day 1," said Clint Bruestle, a member of the Bemidji Community Arena board through Bemidji Youth Hockey. "The footings, the wall structures, the embedded beams, it's all designed for that second building."

The nonprofit, though, is in a "holding pattern" as it awaits the conclusion of Bemidji Area Schools' study into its facility needs, the "ideation" process originally planned to examine youth recreational facilities needs that has since branched out into an examination of educational and community facility needs as well.

Earlier this month, the Bemidji School Board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Bemidji Youth Hockey that stated the district is committed to developing a long-term lease for its hockey teams' games and practices -- both varsity and junior varsity -- to take place at the arena.

The memorandum committed no funding from the district, but states that Bemidji Area Schools "support(s) the concept" of an addition for a second sheet of ice.

"The resolution calls for us to support their efforts regarding the potential construction of a second sheet of ice at the Bemidji Community Arena and it talks about, in the future if changes should be made at Nymore Arena, the school district may consider the dedication of resources for (operation and and maintenance)," said Jim Hess, school superintendent, during the May 19 School Board meeting. Hess was out of town and could not be reached for comment Friday.

Aging arenas

Nymore Arena, a 40-year-old indoor-ice facility owned and operated by the school district, is at the heart of the issue.

Nymore Arena was built in 1973 by Bemidji Youth Hockey, which later sold it at a reduced cost to the school district some years ago in exchange for lower user rates when youth programs use the facility.

While the Bemidji High School teams practice in Nymore Arena, they host their games at the community arena, located adjacent to Bemidji High School on land donated by the district to Bemidji Youth Hockey.

Because the teams do not practice at the community arena, it really is not their true home.

If the second sheet of ice is constructed at the community arena, that would change, Hess told the School Board.

"It would be nice to have our students skate on home ice and get used to that and store their equipment at the same place and call it home," he said May 19.

The community arena was designed to do exactly that. In fact, there is a vacant area behind the players' benches set aside for two boys and two girls locker rooms, all reserved for the high school's use. The unfinished space has dirt floors and needs all of its utilities installed which, if completed, would be done with district funds, as stated in the use agreement approved by Bemidji Youth Hockey and Bemidji Area Schools.

Nymore Arena, where the high school teams practice now, is operable, despite its age.

Youth hockey officials, though, have watched as the slightly older Neilson-Reise Arena, built in the mid-1960s, encounter operating difficulties.

In 2005, Neilson-Reise, owned and operated by the city of Bemidji, was unexpectedly and temporarily closed due to problems with its ice-making system. Leaks were detected and after hosting community meetings, the City Council at that time, on a split vote, opted to repair the facility. The ice floor was leaking so it was removed and replaced.

Those improvements amounted to $395,000 to repair the ice plant and the ice sheet and floor itself, according to city records.

A decade later, the city has now authorized $10,000 for a study to look into the city's options for Neison-Reise's potential needs in response to its refrigeration system, which uses R-22, a type of coolant that the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring to be phased out by 2020.

Currently, Neilson-Reise is operating and is not facing any imminent problems, but Marcia Larson, the city's parks and recreation director, acknowledges its age. Also, as the city has undergone an energy audit, Neilson-Reise's entire plant came up as an area that might be improved, so the study will examine that as well.

Larson said the city decided it was "prudent" to start looking at long-term options for the arena, the only year-round indoor-ice facility in Bemidji that serves a range of organizations, from figure skaters to youth hockey.

"The facility is busy," Larson said. "We need that ice."

'We're trying to be proactive'

A second sheet of ice at the Bemidji Community Arena has long been the plan for Bemidji Youth Hockey, ever since it was constructed 14 years ago. Discussion of that additional project again is arising because of the recent memorandum, which is also a step toward a move from single-year lease agreements between youth hockey and the district to a long-term agreement.

The School Board approved the memorandum while acknowledging that its "ideation" process is ongoing. Hess alluded to potential foundation dollars that may have been available for youth hockey at that time, but Bruestle and Hugh Welle, the treasurer of the Bemidji Community Area committee, said Bemidji Youth Hockey is now waiting on the results of the study.

The ideation process is still in the second phase, and while it has been suggested it might lead to a potential referendum question, or questions, for voter-approval for a new facility -- anything from a new school to an indoor fieldhouse -- it is too early to know.

"We have to wait and see how that plays out specifically for us," Bruestle said.

Their goal for the better part of the last decade, they said, is to get ahead of any potential catastrophic problems at Nymore Arena.

"We're trying to be proactive," Bruestle said. "Even if it fails, to react and have something built, you'd be down a year or two."

The numbers

Bruestle and Welle said they are proud of Bemidji Youth Hockey's history of building facilities without asking for much from local taxpayers.

They said the existing Bemidji Community Arena, with a replacement value of about $8 million, was built with $200,000 in taxpayer funds, including a Mighty Ducks grant then offered by the state. In addition, there was the land donation from the school district and $10,000 a year for 15 years from the city.

Financial support mostly came from foundations, corporations and private individuals, with others donating materials and labor. Today, that support is evident in in the advertising that encircles the community arena. More than 70 businesses have signed marketing agreements in exchange for their logo displays.

"That just reinforces the private sector investment, the support ... of this facility," Bruestle said.

There are about 250 students involved in Bemidji Youth Hockey, which is the primary use of the community arena. But other groups, including figure skating, and hockey leagues such as the "old-timers" and a Sunday evening city league also use the facility. The BSU teams have even been known to use the facility for practice when the Sanford Center is unavailable.

"It's beyond busy," Bruestle said. "From the first of October to the middle of March, it's constantly busy."

Bemidji's indoor ice arenas

Bemidji Community Arena

Built in phases, beginning in 2009

Owned by Bemidji Youth Hockey

Open seasonally, with one rink

Neilson-Reise Arena

Built in 1964-65

Owned by the city of Bemidji

Open year-round, with one rink

Nymore Arena

Built in 1973

Owned by Bemidji Area Schools

Open seasonally, with one rink

Sanford Center

Built in 2010

Owned by city of Bemidji

Open seasonally, primarily for BSU hockey

John Glas Fieldhouse

Built in 1967

Stopped hosting hockey in 2010

Owned by Bemidji State University

Now used as a general fieldhouse, primarily for BSU

The financial impact

The financial impact of Bemidji Youth Hockey to the Bemidji area is valued at more than $7 million a year, according to a report from the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.

Bemidji Youth Hockey reports Bemidji hosts a youth hockey tournament three out of four weekends during each winter month. Because those tournaments involve children, they often are traveling with their families.

The HRDC found the average visitor stays two or three days for multiple games, spending up to $128.45 per day while in the region, the biggest costs being those for accommodations.

With those figures, the HRDC determined a local financial impact of nearly $6.7 million to the local economy from visitors for youth hockey. Add in an additional $625,000 in impact from the local economic activity and it totals an economic impact of about $7.3 million.