The Politics of Ice: Community looks to have discussion on future of ice in Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- The idea of two nice ice sheets for Bemidji evoked immediate response from the entire community. That comes as no surprise, considering Bemidji's status as a hockey town. The city, which has four indoor arenas, is home to Division I co...

Bemidji Youth Hockey goalie Oscar Copiskey watches the action from across the rink on Nov. 24, during the George Pelawa Bantam AA Memorial Tournament at the Bemidji Community Arena. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The idea of two nice ice sheets for Bemidji evoked immediate response from the entire community.

That comes as no surprise, considering Bemidji’s status as a hockey town. The city, which has four indoor arenas, is home to Division I college hockey and a high school team that recently made two runs at the Xcel Energy Center for a state championship.

While the response to the proposal has been large, and interest has swept through most of the First City on the Mississippi, opinions on new sheets of ice, as well as how much ice the community does need and how best to fund those needs, have been varied.

Many of those viewpoints began formulating after a Nov. 13 Bemidji City Council meeting where Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel and Sanford Health officials described their vision for a new wellness complex that would include two new sheets of ice.

What is being proposed is a 175,000 square-foot facility that would be located on Sanford Health’s campus in Bemidji. Once finished, the estimated $28 million complex would have three sections, including a wellness center, a multi-use sports facility with a bubble roof and an arena with two sheets of ice.


Hengel said the addition of ice sheets has been part of the wellness complex idea since Day 1.

“When Sanford was considering the $10 million gift, they did a community needs assessment about the top needs in Bemidji. The first one was wellness and next were a fieldhouse and two sheets of ice. That’s how the framing started,” Hengel said. “All three of those came out as one, two and three. They’ve been part of the process the whole time.”

If the two sheets were constructed, it would bring the community’s total to six. The other sheets are located at the Bemidji Community Arena, built in seven phases between 2000-2012, Nymore Arena, which was built in 1973 and is owned by Bemidji Area Schools, and the two city-owned arenas.

One of the city owned arenas is Neilson Reise, built in 1964. The decades-old facility has two sections, one for skating, the other for the Bemidji Curling Club. The two sections also have their own ice making machines. However, the product used in those machines to make the ice will soon become obsolete, according to officials.

The other city-owned ice is located at the Sanford Center, which opened in October 2010. The building, managed by the Ames, Iowa-based VenuWorks, includes an arena with 4,373 seats and attached conference space. Annually, the city budgets $400,000 from property taxes to cover operating losses and uses remaining funds to reinvest in the 193,000 square-foot building.

During the Nov. 13 presentation, city funds to cover losses at the Sanford Center was another factor that arose. Hengel described the idea of a 2 percent hospitality tax for an Amateur Sports Commission. This commission would promote sports tourism, lease and operate the sports complex and host tournaments. The proposal includes splitting the tax, estimated at $1.25 million annually, by a third. Doing so creates $750,000 for the commission and the city can invest the remaining $500,000 in the Sanford Center.

Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said staff and officials are generally in favor of the proposed wellness facility, which also would include an aquatic center.

“When we talk about ice, though, it raises many questions. The overall planning of ice needs to be a deliberate and thorough process,” Mathews said. “Especially if it’s going to be using taxes in some way, shape or form to fund.”


“A community-wide discussion is the kind of thing that’s needed, one that can tell us what’s the most efficient and cost-effective way to provide ice in the community,” Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said. “As we all know, the city is limited in our resources, whether that’s people’s income to support arenas or our ability to levy taxes. So, we want to make sure we’re being as efficient as we can with the use of, in my case, public dollars.”

Adding on to existing facilities

Along with using potential tax dollars for a commission to effectively run this new arena, questions about future design plans for the Sanford Center and the BCA have resurfaced.

At both buildings the prospect of having a second sheet has been a long-standing idea.

“Originally, the Sanford Center was planned to have two sheets of ice, so that there would be a practice sheet along with the arena,” Albrecht said. “However, because of costs, that was value-engineered out. But, there’s always been a second sheet on the drawing board.”

“The upside of an additional rink is that we’re able to book the main building more while at the same time not displacing BSU,” Sanford Center Executive Director Jeff Kossow said. “It’s a really big deal for the hockey team to be in their own locker room normally.”



According to Mathews, this happened recently when a rodeo was held at the Sanford Center. As a result, the BSU hockey teams had to skate elsewhere for practice.

“It would also help us update our capital equipment and there would be management cost savings,” Albrecht said. “It costs a lot of money to turn the lights on in the arena every day, so we could save money that way with a second sheet.”

Kossow said the second sheet would likely go on the southeast section of the Sanford Center.

“I had the drawing done to show if a second sheet could fit. I wanted to see if it could be tucked in as close as possible to the existing building so we can use the same systems as much as possible to be cost effective,” Kossow said. “For this idea, the Zambonis already in the building could go back and forth to the two rinks.”

At the BCA the entire structure has been designed from Day 1 to connect to a second rink.

“There’s an opening cut in the precast building to allow for expansion to the north with a second rink,” said Hugh Welle, a member of the nonprofit Bemidji Community Arena Corp. “That way the concession stand upstairs could serve both rinks.”

“At the north wall, the footing is already sized to carry the load of the second rink,” said Clint Bruestle, another member of the BCAC. “The wall panels have steel embeds in them to carry the beams of the expansion, and the cooling system is sized for two rinks. Many amenities have been built in to accommodate the second rink.”

With the announcement of the possible new two-rink complex at Sanford Health, though, Welle said second sheet talks at the BCA have been put on hold.


The future for aging facilities

While questions at the BCA and Sanford Center revolve around adding second sheets, questions for Bemidji’s other two arenas center on how many years they have left.

In 2005, for example, Neilson Reise was temporarily closed due to problems with its ice-making system. Additionally, the ice floor was leaking and it needed to be removed and replaced. In total, the improvement costs came to $395,000.

“In 2014, we did an evaluation of the (Neilson) arena, which was presented to the council,” said Bemidji Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson. “What we know is that it’s running currently, but it’s past its useful life. I can’t imagine the building still being in operation 10 years from now.”

And it may be more like five years, according to the study.

“Knowing how old everything is there, though, the costs of maintaining it will certainly go up,” Larson said.

“We’re on borrowed time with Neilson Reise, so we’ll have to make an investment in some way, whether that’s decommissioning it and building a second sheet at the Sanford Center, or rehabbing the existing facility, which has a lot of code corrections. The latter make it just as expensive, if not more than just building a new one,” Mathews said. “We also have a strong relationship with our curling club. We want to make sure whatever decision we make as a city, we’re including our partners.”

“For us, Nymore has always been the mainstay,” said Bemidji Area Schools Activities Director Troy Hendricks on the other decades-old arena. “But, we don’t know at this point the longevity of Nymore. I don’t think anyone wants to put a large dollar figure into Nymore if something catastrophic were to happen to it. Still, there’s no timetable on the arena.”


Hendricks did say, though, that eventually, the school wants to make the BCA the home of the Bemidji High School hockey teams. While the high school uses Nymore for most practices, the boys and girls teams use the BCA for practice the day before games as well as play all games there.

“Eventually, we hope to do all of our play and practice at the BCA. Those discussions have been in place for a while, and we know that Nymore isn’t getting any younger.”

Usage by teams and clubs

The BCA, which is next to Bemidji High School and on land leased by the school district, is also used heavily by the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association, which is the owner of the facility. While they have the BCA, though, BYA Board President Bruce Hasbargen said they’re in favor of the new facility if the dollars can be worked out.

“For us, it’s the ice rental costs that’s important. We’re in need of ice time,” Hasbargen said. “Along with our main rink, we utilize the ice time at Nymore that the school doesn’t use. Plus, the city rink at Neilson Reise is where we have all of our Mite programs.”

Hasbargen said the number of participants in youth hockey has been on the rise, and rinks are increasingly more and more in use. About 275 participants play in the association’s numerous teams and programs.

“From last year, to this year, we’ve increased by two teams,” Hasbargen said. “We’ve seen more kids entering, which we think is because of our programs to teach new skaters, providing equipment and the high school team making the state tournament was a boost.”

Hasbargen said having more local teams for local tournaments also will likely see an increase.


“Where we would expand on tournaments is the number of teams participating in those tournaments. For us, we have to have a tournament for every level of team, so there are A level, B level, B2 level,” Hasbargen said. “A six- or eight-team tournament could move to 10, 12 or 16 teams.”

Bemidji Figure Skating students in the basic level watch their coach Morgan Stuve closely during a practice on Nov. 30.

The prospect of more tournaments in Bemidji has been a main feature in touting the proposed Wellness Center/Sports Bubble/Ice Sheet complex, too. According to estimates provided by Hengel, new tournaments because of the facility (including non-ice sports such as basketball, tennis, volleyball) could have an economic impact of $4 million, with $2.4 million in direct spending and roughly 9,900 hotel stays.

“I think it opens doors for tournaments and I don’t believe there will be direct competition with us,” Kossow of the Sanford Center said. “Plus, if you do a multi-day tournament, you can lead up to the finals where the main arena, like the Sanford Center, can come into play.”

Tournaments and other on-ice activities won’t be limited to youth hockey in Bemidji in the present and future, either. For example, Larson said Neilson Reise is also home to many adult hockey leagues as well as BSU intramurals and club hockey.

Another main tenant of Neilson Reise that uses a large chunk of ice time is the Bemidji Figure Skating Club. As a result, club President Nancy Neis said the organization is excited about the potential for two new sheets.

“We’re a little worried right now about Neilson Reise, because we’ve been told that they don’t want to put money into it and we have no place to go. Neilson Reise is the only place we skate. “At the same time, we’ve never needed anywhere else to skate,” Neis said. “The potential of two new sheets, though, will build excitement and lead to an increase in membership in the club.”

What’s the right amount of ice?

“We need more sheets of ice than we have right now,” Hasbargen said. “Looking into the future, if Nymore and Neilson Reise close and those other rinks were made, hopefully we would be looking at another site at the BCA, and/or if the city moves forward with a second sheet at the Sanford Center.”

“I feel that four sheets of ice isn’t enough,” Neis said. “So, if we could get two new sheets and the other two sheets at the BCA and Sanford Center, those six would probably be adequate for the city.”

While there is a need for more ice, though, Mathews said new facilities are directly tied to how many dollars are available.

“The number of sheets depends on what the community can afford as well, it’s not just what we’d like to see. People that are the users and boosters of hockey and skating, yes they want more sheets, but you have to find the spot between cost and ice,” Mathews said. “So, we want to make sure when we build sheets, we know how we’re going to run them and that we’re not exponentially growing our operational deficits.”

“How many sheets of ice can the community operate? That’s the question,” Larson said. “I think the ice we have now is probably full, though, our rink is packed.”

Kossow agreed that it’s a point that needs to be reviewed.

“It’s a legitimate question and one the city will need to wrestle with,” Kossow said. “How much is too much and how much is not enough?”

“At a minimum, somehow, we need to replace those two sheets (Nymore and Neilson Reise),” Hendricks said. “So, that new complex does that and serves a role for the community. It would certainly be a great opportunity.”

To answer those questions, Mathews said the city will conduct a “total community ice facility planning process” in 2018. Using professional consultants, he said the city plans for a cost analysis and a feasibility study for a second sheet of ice at the Sanford Center. Additionally, studying a second sheet at the Sanford Center will correlate with plans for Neilson Reise and the curling club.

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