Back in 1990, there were 10 groups of ice arena users — leagues, youth associations and the like — on St. Paul’s East Side; now there is one. The 16 high school hockey teams that played in St. Paul in 1975 have dwindled to five.
Given those stark facts Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board is expected in coming months to devise a plan that, if trends continue, could end up closing one or more of the county’s 11 arenas.
“Our demographics are changing,” said Jon Oyanagi, chief of the Ramsey County parks, “and the handwriting is on the wall for a system of ice arenas that we believe to be the biggest in the country.”
No one building has been openly targeted for shutting down, but a task force Tuesday released reams of internal information offering clues.
Among the key vital signs:
• Although prime ice time remains 90 percent booked systemwide, the number of Ramsey County users is well below that, and some arenas book hundreds in fewer hours than others.
• Most arenas face bills of $850,000 or more to junk cooling systems for environmental reasons. That raises questions as to whether a building with a single sheet of ice is worth the fix when a double-sheet arena can cost as little to operate while reeling in twice the rental fees.
• Many arenas are aging, uncomfortably chilly and overcrowded, with users “begging” for upgrades, according to Mike McGraw, a task force member who is a TV hockey analyst and scout for the Boston Bruins NHL team.
“These are dated, 40-year-old buildings,” McGraw said, “functional for ice purposes but needing to become a little more user-friendly. Equipment bags are five times bigger than they were, and coaches wanting to talk to teams find it hard to walk — the bags are all over.”
The task force report includes a host of arena metrics, including the cost to update facilities, the condition of each arena and user numbers. A table shows each arena’s main user group and the number of hours rented by those groups.
On that list, Phalen Arena on the East Side registers fewer than 600 hours while Pleasant, which hosts a figure skating club, rings up more than 1,300 hours. Prime rental hours annually number 1,200.
One reason for Phalen’s dwindling activity might be that whites now make up just 36 percent of residents in nearby neighborhoods, according to the report. Ramsey County has been a state leader in its number of refugees and immigrants, notable even nationally for certain groups such as the Hmong. But efforts to get newcomers into the hockey culture have had a spotty record, the task force found.
County commissioners stressed that, for now, there’s a lot to work through — especially in terms of cost, which they hope state taxpayers will help share. There is no specific timeline as yet for decisions, officials said.
Dramatic changes are “not something that will happen overnight,” Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said. “We’re trying to make sure we take a thoughtful look at all the different aspects. … This has not been fully vetted by this County Board.”
One of the touchiest issues is how much money the county should put into a building that is heavily used by groups from outside its borders.
The task force, convened last April, recommended that the board consider closing or “repurposing” an arena if Ramsey County-based groups account for less than half its use. Oyanagi said that groups from the county account for 77 percent of ice time.
The task force also recommended shifting costs to non-Ramsey users by raising their rental rates while holding steady the rates for county-based users.
And it proposed seeking multiyear agreements with non-Ramsey groups that, in exchange for priority time allotments, would include a “capital improvement fee” to make up for the fact that those users don’t pay county taxes.
Commissioners promised an extensive opportunity for public comment, including a website for that purpose.
A copy of the Arena Task Force’s report, with a link for public comment, is available online at www.ramseycounty.us/arenataskforce. Comments also may be made by calling 651-748-2500.