Hockey could be left in cold in West St. Paul

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2011 - 11:26 PM

City officials are refocusing on building an indoor sports dome that would not include an ice sheet.

West St. Paul's reversal of plans to renovate or rebuild its ice arena appears likely to end a 40-year hockey tradition for the city and leave the local high school teams without home ice.

"It looks like hockey is done for us," West St. Paul City Council Member Jim Englin reported with regret in his voice last week when he updated council members on the sports complex proposal he has championed for the past two years.

"It's crushing," Englin said in an interview. "It's 40 years of a tradition and it's going to end. We have always had hockey in town."

The West St. Paul Ice Arena at 60 Emerson Av. W. is open this winter for what is expected to be its last season. The arena's future has not yet been determined, but council members said razing it and opening the 10 acres to redevelopment is an option.

The city will instead rescale its plans for a sports complex to accommodate a dome for soccer, football, baseball and lacrosse.

The 40-year-old ice arena needs $2 million of repairs to the roof and ice-making equipment, and a recent financial analysis shows that arena revenues would not be enough to pay off that investment, Englin said.

John McManus, president of the West St. Paul Youth Athletic Association, said the old arena is "showing its years and it can't continue without major improvements. In the spring, it would leak water onto the ice and onto the stands."

But closing it would be a loss to youth sports, to Sibley High School teams and to West St. Paul businesses, backers say.

The association will try one more time to convene community leaders to see whether the arena can be saved, McManus said.

"It may be a long shot," he said, but the question should be asked: "Hey, who can pony up what?" to save it.

Without the ice arena, players will face more expensive ice time in other communities and the high school hockey teams won't have a home arena, McManus said. The teams will have to play at the arenas of rival schools at South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights or St. Thomas Academy, he said. "It's a little tough to have your home games in another arena," he said.

Robert Street businesses will lose the patronage of parents who typically take the hour-and-a-half while they are waiting for their kids at practice to shop or eat, McManus said.

Englin, born and raised in West St. Paul, said he hates to be associated with ending the hockey tradition. His own son plays hockey. But, he said, fewer than 100 families in town have children who play hockey -- not enough to support an arena. He had long proposed the arena complex as an economic development tool that would draw players from the surrounding area.

While the city will continue to offer outdoor hockey rinks in neighborhood parks, families looking for organized hockey will have to take their children to other arenas, Englin said.

Option B: Sports dome

Changing course, the city will advertise immediately for an architect to configure a sports dome on the open land in the City Hall block at 1616 Humboldt Av. and to design a proposed addition and improvements to City Hall itself -- another project the City Council has been considering.

The existing building, which is cramped and lacks windows, was built in 1969 in a style Mayor John Zanmiller refers to as an "architecturally nauseating" concrete "bunker."

A decision on building a sports dome won't come until after the architect presents a design and construction costs early next year, Englin said.

He said he hopes the council will approve it and that construction will start in the spring and the facility can open by fall.

A key question yet to be decided is whether the city would want a year-round permanent dome or a seasonal inflated dome that is taken down in the summer. Either would house a full-size soccer field.

A permanent dome would cost about $1 million more than a seasonal facility, according to a review by Ehlers public finance consultants. The cost of building a permanent facility would be about $5 million and a seasonal facility would cost about $4 million, Ehlers said.

It would cost about $7,000 more a year to operate the seasonal dome because of take-down and put-up costs.

The firm projects that youth athletic associations would be the most frequent users of the dome and its chief revenue source. Other users of the dome could include the Minnesota Thunder soccer team, as well as the Minnesota Women's Soccer Club.

Projections show the city could fall $80,000 short of what it needs to pay off construction bonds annually -- unless construction costs are reduced and strong revenues are lined up.

The $80,000 gap is a worst-case scenario and will be whittled back, Englin said.

He said he took it upon himself two years ago to champion a sports complex to improve the livability of the city and make it more attractive to young families.

"While we have a senior population right now, that doesn't mean that we are always going to have a senior population.

"Forty years ago, the ice arena was a popular amenity," Englin said. "I think this [sports dome] is something that will spur economic development by bringing more people into town."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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