BEMIDJI -- With the Neilson Reise Arena's future still shrouded in uncertainty, the Bemidji City Council on Monday considered working with the owners of the Bemidji Community Arena Corp. as a possible option.
Representatives from the BCA spoke with city leadership during a work session, where they said they have intentions of keeping one of their rinks open during summer months. The BCA is a 101,000 square-foot ice complex with two sheets.
Construction began on the original section, titled First National Arena, in 2000. Then, in fall 2020, the new section with the Sanford POWER Rink started operations. The BCA is the home for the Bemidji High School Boys and Girls Hockey Teams, as well as Bemidji Youth Hockey.
Neilson Reise Arena, meanwhile, was built in 1964, and the structure also contains two sections. One is 28,500 square feet and holds an ice rink, while the other is 19,000 square feet and is home to the Bemidji Curling Club. The rink portion of the building is home to the Bemidji Figure Skating Club.
While Neilson Reise is often open year-round, for most of 2020 it was dormant because of the coronavirus pandemic. Considerations have been made to reopen the building, with the council approving a COVID-19 safety plan in December, but the doors remain closed.
Even with the pandemic subsides, though, Neilson Reise may still remain closed. According to city staff, there hasn't been adequate capital funding to upgrade the building, which can create a financial risk if the building is reopened.
Additionally, machinery for the ice rink section has become outdated. The equipment uses R-22 refrigerant, which isn't produced anymore because of environmental concerns. The arena does have some R-22 to last until the near future, but it remains a finite supply.
With questions remaining, city staff noted that reopening Neilson Reise and providing ice in the summer may be difficult. However, leadership from the BCA stated they plan to open the Sanford POWER Rink in the coming months and are open to working with the city, as well as the Bemidji School District, to learn if partnerships are possible.
If so, the new sheet of ice at the BCA could provide ice to those displaced by a closed Neilson Reise.
The Bemidji School District comes into play as it also owns an ice facility. The district owns Nymore Arena, a 32,400 square-foot facility built in 1973 which is used by local hockey organizations for practice.
Following a discussion, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince said he supports city staff continuing to discuss options with BCA officials and to bring their findings back to the council.
"I'm very appreciative to potentially have a partnership," Prince said. "I have spoken with figure skaters and I've received a number of emails and have had conversations with Neilson Reise users. At the same time, I've been over the finances several times. To take the risk of opening it (Neilson Reise) creates potentially a $100,000 to $200,000 exposure to the city, in addition to the health risks related to COVID.
"Those are very real concerns," said Prince. "At the same time, we want to provide services to the community. With these conversations, it felt as though with the immediate problem of summer ice that this could be a good solution for everyone in the short term, as we work together on the medium term and eventually the long term."
Along with the Neilson Reise, the city owns another ice facility in the Sanford Center. Opened in 2010, the Sanford Center is a 193,000 square-foot building, containing an arena with more than 4,000 seats and attached conference space. The building is home to BSU men's and women's hockey programs.