DULUTH — The city of Duluth will use up to $200,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act for a temporary ice chiller to maintain the ice sheet at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena — a short-term fix for the rink used by thousands of youth hockey players and figure skaters each year.
After that, DECC officials plan to shift to non-ice events for the arena: conventions, concerts and other sports, according to communications director Lucie Amundsen.
The DECC Arena's ice plant, installed in 1966, was shut down this past spring after a safety assessment. The plant created ice for the DECC's secondary rink — a closure that did not affect Amsoil Arena, home of the University of Minnesota Duluth hockey teams, or the Duluth Curling Club. Both use different ice plants.
The temporary ice chiller gives the arena's users a few years to find, or potentially build, a new facility — time they weren't sure they would have this past March when the ice plant was shut down.
"A lot of people thought [the arena] was going to shut down this year," said Duluth Amateur Hockey Association executive director Bob Nygaard, who called the chiller a "lifeline."
This lifeline hit days before Mayor Emily Larson announced the formation of an indoor athletics venues task force — a group that will be charged with making recommendations about improved or new sports facilities. And there is money available to make it possible: The Minnesota Legislature extended the city's half-percent tourism tax for improvements to athletic facilities.
The city's major hockey tournaments bring in upward of 60 teams each, according to Nygaard, and no indoor rink goes idle. For a while, there was a concern that these would have to be canceled.
A study by the University of Minnesota Duluth's Labovitz School of Business and Economics found that the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association's youth hockey operations account for more than $10 million in local economic impact every year.
"The DECC Arena is part of the network of rinks in Duluth that support tournaments and competitions, which drive the economic impact through hotels, restaurants, retail and related spending," Larson said in a news release.
The new task force is years in the making and born of disappointment about local sports facilities, according to Todd Fedora, a former city councilor who has been named the chairman. It's currently seeking about a dozen sports-minded residents to apply.
"I've been chasing hockey sticks or lacrosse sticks for soccer balls for years," Fedora said. "We'd go to tournaments in other communities and the undercurrent seemed to be 'why can't we have something like this in Duluth?'
He is envisioning a new athletic complex capable of hosting a mix of sports — with turf, basketball courts and more — in addition to space for Duluthians to just walk. After this past winter, which broke a snowfall record, Fedora said there was limited outdoor practice space available until mid-April, long after metro teams had taken to fields.
"Now we have a funding source, a meaningful one, it's time to stop talking and start walking," he said.
Nygaard said he wants youth hockey facilities to be part of the equation — whether they are separately housed or part of the same facility.
The city council unanimously approved of the temporary ice chiller during Monday's meeting — along with a separate ask by the DECC for a $1 million line of credit. The City Council already approved an American Rescue Plan Act investment to help previous tourism tax recipients. This would satisfy that goal.