BEMIDJI -- The Neilson Reise Arena will remain closed for the time being, but its reopening is under evaluation.

During a work session Monday, the Bemidji City Council directed Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson to draft a COVID-19 preparedness plan for the Neilson Reise Arena, with assistance from City Manager Nate Mathews. The plan would then be reviewed in the near future by the city's Public Affairs Committee.

The discussion and action by the council followed recent inquiries to the city by users of the facility on the potential for Neilson Reise to reopen with safety precautions. The facility has been shut down since the pandemic arrived in Minnesota in mid-March, with the ice being removed in April.

According to city documents, to date, the operating loss at Neilson Reise has been $62,000. To reopen the facility, staff would need about three to four weeks, and a contractor would need to be hired to assist in ice creation at a minimum of $5,000.

Additionally, the facility would require COVID-19 related updates, such as signage and protective shields. Plus, areas such as locker rooms would need to be closed.

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The Neilson Reise Arena, which is owned by the city and built in 1964, is one of four ice arena facilities in Bemidji. The arena is utilized by local organizations such as the Bemidji Figure Skating Club and the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association.

The other three include:

  • The 193,000-square foot Sanford Center, opened in 2010. Owned by the city, the facility includes a 4,373-seat arena and is managed by the Ames, Iowa-based company VenuWorks. It's home to BSU's hockey programs.
  • The Bemidji Community Arena, which has been built in phases since 2000. Owned by the Bemidji Community Arena Corp., the BCA is home to Bemidji High School hockey programs. This fall, a new section of the facility, titled the Sanford POWER Rink, is expected to open.
  • The Nymore Arena, owned by Bemidji Area Schools and built in 1973.

Over the course of Monday's discussion, the two options primarily considered were keeping the facility closed until the end of 2020 or the action to allow Larson to draft a plan.

One of the supporters of keeping the arena closed was Ward 5 City Council member Nancy Erickson.

"We need to be clear that the Neilson Reise is an aged facility, and that it's at the end of its run," Erickson said. "I don't know if we're ever going to sufficiently provide ice as a city. Also, the city carries a liability with reopening a facility, and in this case, it's a much higher liability."

Because of the current lack of ice in the community, though, Ward 3 Council member Ron Johnson argued for exploring a reopening plan.

"Right now, four rinks are the optimal thing. We don't have Nymore open, we don't have the second BCA rink open yet, plus the Sanford Center ice just started," Johnson said. "The reason for concern is that there just isn't that much ice out there. I think we should put the ice on, and start making plans for how we should open things up."

In his comments, Ward 1 Council member Michael Meehlhause said all options should be explored.

"We can get more information from Marcia, and still reach the conclusion that we can't safely reopen Neilson Reise through the rest of the year," Meehlhause said. "I think that we still have to at least see what a plan would look like before making that call."

Mayor Rita Albrecht agreed, and said waiting a few weeks may give the city more of an idea on the need to reopen.

"I'd also like to know if high school hockey will be played, the impacts on the BCA, and if Nymore will have ice on it," said Albrecht. "Those are issues we don't have results on tonight. I think it might be valuable to have that.

"It would give us a better understanding of what our capacity is with a COVID plan and what a potential rental income would be," Albrecht said. "It would also provide our user groups an understanding of the amount of time and availability of ice, so that they would know what exactly is expected."