The ice sheets at all but two of Ramsey County’s 10 arenas, where thousands of pucks were smacked and toe loops perfected, have now been removed, sounding a note of finality to the winter season.
But before the figure skaters, curlers and hockey players from mites to seniors begin returning in late summer, the county will grapple with a host of issues having both an immediate and long-term impact on the future of those venues and who will use them.
Three high schools and Hamline University, key arena tenants, are looking to make millions of dollars in upgrades — not at county expense — to aging arenas for their hockey programs. Como Park High School is urgently looking to the county for a new place to call home for its hockey team after Warner Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds closed its ice sheet for good in February. And adding a wild card to the mix, the county is on the verge of acquiring the Vadnais Sports Center by midsummer, pending the outcome of a court hearing Monday.
Currently, the county runs seven arenas scattered around St. Paul and three in the suburbs of White Bear Lake, Shoreview and Maplewood. Making adjustments to the shifting and sometimes conflicting demands on those buildings by the many arena users is a constant challenge with many interconnected and moving parts.
“Once I open those doors, once we start the season, we need to have every available hour rented,” said Greg Mack, director of the county’s Parks & Recreation Department. “It’s not a science, but it’s more like an art to keep those schedules filled.”
Supply and demand
In a County Board workshop to address the issue last week, Mack outlined the supply and demand factors that will guide the board’s decisions on future arena investments.
Foremost among them, he said, are economic pressures and the changing demographics, including more diverse cultures less ingrained in winter sports, that have resulted in a drop in participation in youth hockey across the county. For example:
• St. Paul once had six boys’ public prep hockey teams, now there are only three — at Como, Johnson and Highland Park. The number of girls’ teams, meanwhile, has declined from three to one — the citywide co-op Blades program based at Ken Yackel West Side Arena.
• The St. Bernard’s High School hockey program ended when the school closed in 2010. St. Agnes High School also shut down its program.
• Some youth hockey associations, such as one on the West Side, have disbanded, too, while others, including those in the Como and East Side neighborhoods, have merged as hockey participation has dipped. Just this week, the North St. Paul Area Hockey Association told the county it was working on a merger with the St. Paul Johnson Como Hockey Association.
The falloff in participation has meant a slip in demand and fewer hours of ice time being rented, Mack said.
At one time, the county averaged nearly 14,000 rental hours. That fell to about 10,000 hours in 2011-12 before rebounding to about 11,000 hours this past season.
On the supply side, there has been a surge in metro-area arena construction in recent years. Eight rinks were added at the Schwan’s Super Rink Complex in Blaine while St. Thomas Academy, once a county tenant, built its own. Ice arenas also have been built at Tartan High School in Oakdale, and in Stillwater, Inver Grove Heights, Woodbury and Eagan.
In Vadnais Heights, the Vadnais Sports Center added two rinks to the mix.
Looking for a home
Just how tricky it has become to balance the demand for ice time was recently illustrated with the closing of the Warner Coliseum ice arena. For years, Como Park High School played at the county’s Biff Adams Arena in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood before moving to the roomier Coliseum. But when State Fair officials, citing the prohibitive cost of upgrading ice-making equipment, announced in December that there would no longer be ice there after this season, Como was forced to look elsewhere.
So far, it’s had no luck finding a new home.
Ice time is available at the Ken Yackel West Side Arena, but that means a long drive across town for games and practices, making it hard to foster the program, said Mike Searles, Como’s athletic director.
“All we want is equal treatment,” he added, noting other city high school teams are able to use arenas close to their schools.
Como would like to rent space at Oscar Johnson Arena, which is near the Coliseum, but Hamline University’s hockey teams are the main tenants there. Biff Adams Arena, threatened with closure a few years ago — in part because of Como’s departure — has since been converted for use by a thriving curling club.
Mack said he is confident a solution can be found that “will take care of their needs. But we can’t do that at the risk of slamming the door on our other customers.”
Indeed, the county has long-standing ties to the anchor tenants of its arenas.
Hill-Murray School plays annually at Aldrich Arena, and the 75-year-old St. Paul Figure Skating Club regularly rents Pleasant Arena. The relationships benefit both sides: The tenants offer financial stability to the arena system while getting the ice time they need for their activities.
But given that the arenas also are built and run for public benefit, part of the County Board’s decision will be to address those needs as well. That issue will come into play as the board considers requests for capital improvements at four arenas, which are in early stages of development, Mack said.
Hill-Murray is asking for a $650,000 to $750,000 locker room addition to Aldrich Arena; Cretin-Derham Hall would like to add two stories for about $1 million for locker rooms and a community room at Charles Schulz/Highland Arena. Johnson High wants to add locker rooms at Phalen Arena for roughly $250,000; a locker room addition sought by Hamline at Oscar Johnson Arena would likely cost at least $1 million.
Mack said the plans would be fully funded by those requesting them. Additional operating costs resulting from the additions, such as heat and water, would also be charged to the tenants once they are in place.