City hires firm to design ice arena

by Kurt Nesbitt
Contributing Writer
One big question about the future of Elk River’s ice arenas was answered Monday night, but as council members answered that question they raised more.

At the end of about an hour and a half of presentations, questions of city staff and discussion among council members, the Elk River City Council voted 3-2 to hire 292 Design Group for $1.06 million to design improvements for the ice arena and Lion John Weicht Park. The entire project is expected to cost about $25 to $32 million.

The vote continues the city’s efforts to replace “the Barn,” among other things, which is 45 years old and has ongoing maintenance issues, including a refrigeration system that uses an obsolete coolant. The city wants to demolish that arena, reduce the size of the adjoining Olympic arena and add space it could use for recreation and community functions, replacing high school softball fields lost in the construction in Lion John Weicht Park.

The issue also revived debate among council members on how to fund the project. City council members generally agreed the city needs to address ongoing maintenance issues at the two ice arenas and agreed that they are something that attracts people to Elk River, but were divided on how the city would pay for it.

City Administrator Cal Portner mentioned during his presentation of the proposal that the city can use a tax levy or sell bonds to fund the project. He said a levy would cost $85 a year on a home valued at $200,000.

He also said there are “a lot of variables” that the city can use, including the city’s reserve funds, which have paid for Elk River’s new library, public works and public safety buildings. He also mentioned the city’s tax levy is now lower than in was nearly 10 years ago, and that the city has been growing by about 5 percent each year, Portner said.

Council members also discussed several additional possibilities, including a second referendum, a 1 percent local sales tax, grants to pay for parts of the project, joint-powers agreements with neighboring communities, selling the naming rights to the arena, community fundraising and talking with the Elk River Area School District about funding possibilities.

Council Member Jennifer Wagner said she felt the “ship has sailed” in terms of a referendum but later mentioned she might support a second referendum effort if the scope was wide enough to include things like trails.

Mayor John Dietz agreed the city needs to take action about the ice arena but repeatedly stated throughout the discussion that he “had a hard time” with levying monies from people who don’t use ice arenas.

Council Member Nate Ovall also said he supports the project, but also felt that the city has higher priorities, like a fire station in the east. He said he is concerned about “property tax creep” as well — property taxes gradually being pushed higher and higher to pay for city projects.

Council Member Matt Westgaard said he thinks the arena clearly needs repair and thinks a second referendum has no guarantee of passing. He later mentioned that other communities have found grants for ice arena projects.

“How much longer can we kick the can down the road? The Arena Committee has been talking for a decade that the building needs to be fixed,” he said.

All of them agreed that alternative funding, such as grants or government bonds or community fundraising efforts or a 1 percent local sales tax could be researched and used, in addition to using existing city funds or a property tax levy.

The question before the council Monday night was whether to hire a design firm, a $1 million proposition that Wagner said would require follow through on a project.

Council members Jerry Olsen, Westgaard and Wagner voted ‘yes’ and Dietz and Ovall voted ‘no’. The proposal passed the council three votes to two.

Portner said the council will discuss the architectural concepts, review and vote on them in November. He said the city will know the actual cost of the project in February.