County bid for Vadnais facility speaks to ice arena issues

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2013 - 9:46 PM

The problem is not too many arenas but too little programming done to fill their schedules, state official says.

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The Forest Lake school district wants to buy the Lichtscheidl Arena, where young hockey players skated in a clinic on Friday. The state must OK the purchase. T at in Forest Lake, Minn.

Photo: Photos by DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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If you looked at the bare statistics, it might seem hard to make a good case for Ramsey County buying the financially troubled Vadnais Sports Center to bolster the county’s ice rink offerings.

In the past decade, ice hours rented at the county’s arenas have increased by only 3 percent. In the past five years, revenues generated by the arenas have declined by 20 percent.

It could be that there are more than enough ice sheets to meet demand. Or it could be that Ramsey County’s aging arenas have lost business to state-of-the-art ­facilities in such places as Stillwater and Woodbury — not to mention Vadnais Heights.

Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon for local governments like Ramsey County to rescue ice arenas from public and private owner/operators who have struggled to make ends meet.

Waconia has taken over its ice arena from its co-partner, a hockey club unable to meet its financial obligations. The Forest Lake school district is waiting for the state to approve its purchase of an ice arena from the local nonprofit athletic association, which had trouble operating the facility.

But the metro area isn’t actually seeing a lot of ice arenas going out of business, because there’s a fairly good balance between ice supply and demand, said Barclay Kruse, associate director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission based in Blaine.

An arm of the commission, a state agency charged with creating economic development through amateur sports, warned Vadnais Heights officials in 2009 that projections for the sport center’s revenues and expenses were way off.

City officials never asked the commission to help with planning for the facility, which it would have done for free.

“There’s not too many ice arenas,” Kruse said. “The Vadnais facility, if it was built differently and wasn’t so expensive, could have been and still could be a successful ice arena under a different operational model.”

Based on its record since 2008, Ramsey County may be able to supply that model.

The county has been able to cover operating expenses for its 11 ice arenas with arena-generated revenues, even though they’ve declined. County Board Chair Rafael Ortega said that built-in efficiencies will enable the county to run the Vadnais center cost-effectively.

And with the county’s 11 arenas constantly in need of pricey repairs, he said the chance to buy the Vadnais facility for less than half its $26.5 million cost is “a great opportunity.”

“When I look at the work we have to do to renovate our old facilities, or take one down and build another one, we’d be talking $10 million or more” anyway, Ortega said.

Although he wouldn’t disclose the amount of the county’s bid — which was due Friday — the asking price for the Vadnais center is $13 million. Bids were to begin at $8 ­million.

Vadnais Heights built the sports center, which opened in 2010, with bonding and then transferred ownership to the nonprofit Community Facilities Partners.

The financing included $11.6 million of tax-exempt Federal Recovery Zone Facility bonds, which the city got through Ramsey County.

The county earlier had granted Vadnais Heights $500,000 from its Environmental Response Fund to test the site, a former landfill, for toxins.

  • related content

  • The Lichtscheidl Arena was first operated by private/nonprofit groups, but is being taken over by a public entity after the arena wasn’t run properly. It’s ­common for a public jurisdiction to rescue a failing arena, with mixed results.

  • A hockey clinic for 5- to 7-year-old players was held Friday at the Forest Lake arena. Here, Luke Larsen, front, prepared to take the ice. The $4.5 million arena, built in 2008, was sold to the school district in May for $3.3 million, down from its $5 million market value.

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