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Hockey: can Wadena afford to wait?

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The Wadena City Council denied a motion on Tuesday, Aug. 31 for the Wadena Hockey Association to move forward with the immediate rebuilding of the hockey arena.

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Council member Kay Browne made the motion contingent on letting the city council review and approve the plans. The motion died for lack of a second.

Nearly every seat was filled in the council chambers, and Mayor Wayne Wolden said about 50 people were there.

John Paulson, speaking on behalf of the Community Center, said, "After the tornado, the board met and decided that they would take a portion of the funds and rebuild the hockey arena portion to begin with."

He said they would work with the city and the school to rebuild a collaborative fitness area afterward. He said that they wanted to save the cement structure and ice plant that survived the tornado. He said the cost estimates were from $2.1 to $3 million dollars with a structurally engineered steel building.

"It will be a nicer looking building," he said. He added that there would be eight locker rooms added to the north of the building. He said that the Community Center would own the new building and lease it to the Hockey Association.

"Back in 1985, our forefathers ... intended to have hockey in that building, and we should to put that back up," Paulson said.

"What if this building is built, and what if no pool and other recreational facilities take place?" Mayor Wayne Wolden asked. "Now there's no public swimming pool in town."

City administrator Brad Swenson said that new codes would have to be met for the new pool, and FEMA would pick up 75 percent of the new cost.

Wolden said that public input was in favor of an indoor pool.

Browne said she had received a letter from a hockey player asking if they could get FEMA funding.

Paulson said FEMA considered the Community Center a non-essential, non-public building, and they would not qualify. He said he withdrew the application for FEMA aid.

When asked what he thought of the city's involvement, Paulson said he would like to see the city council continue the lease.

Council member Don Niles asked city attorney Jeff Pederson about how bidding requirements might apply to a facility designated for public use and not paying real estate taxes.

"Are these $3 million in funds public funds?" Browne asked. "They're insurance dollars, they're private dollars, as far as I can see."

Pat Boline of the Hockey Assocation said that the Community Center building would have structural steel.

"We're on a budget program," Jeff Harrison of the Hockey Association said. "$1.5 million, trying to get the facility going this fall and protect the ice generating structure that is there."

Boline also said they would add separate women's showers and bathrooms, which were not included in the previous facility.

Chris O'Kane from the Hockey Association said they had considered a couple of plans which were found to be too expensive and were trying to save money by using what they have. He said it should not be compared to the Fergus Falls community center because that building was being tied with the school.

"It leaves a lot of things to be desired," O'Kane said.

Quoting a Bemidji coach, Niles said, "Pause then plan, because the mistakes you make today will cost you for 10, 20 years in the future."

Boline said they had full support from the hockey association and that holding off the project would damage Wadena hockey for the long term.

Harrison said that delaying the construction would endanger the ice-producing slab.

"The big question is, what can be done ASAP to protect that half a million dollars worth of ice-producing concrete and plant that's there?" he asked. "If we lose that slab, we're basically going to lose everything that our forefathers have created since the 1980s."

O'Kane said they were looking into a local refrigeration business which would allow them to save money.

He said that the methanol solution in the piping under the cement had never been colder than 12 degrees and could burst over the frigid Minnesota winter.

"I think this plan just makes sense for our town," Browne said. "I think you're proposing exactly what we need. And I don't really want to stand in the way."

Other council members expressed the importance of waiting for a long-term plan.

"I want a strong successful [hockey] program," Niles said. "The comments I've had as far as Wadena 2.0, is whatever gets built in whatever area, we should have something our community is proud of."

Council member Jeanette Baymler said that the Minnesota Design Team was going to be visiting Wadena in October.

"I'd like to know what their opinion is before we get too far into building," she said.

Niles said that the Wadena 2.0 steering committee authorized a request for a proposal for architectural services to update the 2006 community center plan. Proposals will be due on Sept. 10. "That's going on in conjunction with the Minnesota Design Team," he said. "Those are professionals who have been building rinks."

He said that operational costs could be reduced with professional planning.

"I'm an advocate for planning if you can do it," he said.

O'Kane said that the aforementioned savings were for year-round hockey rinks, not seasonal rinks.

"We are the greenest way you can be. We shut it off," he said. "We've got to get kids a place to play fast."

He said he did not want to see kids going back and forth to Long Prairie every night.

"The plan that we have is the most efficient way to do it. It's the cheapest construction, it's a big upgrade over what was there, it will look nice," O'Kane said.

He said they could not afford precast concrete.

Earlier, Wolden had said that he wanted to see a more storm-resistant building with material like precast concrete.

O'Kane also said that it was too late to have a finished building by the winter sports season, but they could get a practice rink which would still make a huge difference for hockey families.

Niles expressed concern over authorizing a project which he said was "the same in many respects as the other building without exploring the opportunity for improvement, for what ends up being 60 days or less of ice time January, February, perhaps March of 2011."

He said they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve.

O'Kane said that if no building was up by the winter 2011 season, some hockey families would eventually leave.

Council member Toby Pierce said that nothing has created as much controversy as the hockey question. "The bulk of the people that have contacted me ... are asking, 'What is the rush?'" he said. "When we had the disaster people come in here ... they kept saying over and over, 'Do not make any hasty decisions.'"

Pierce, who was the president of the Community Center when it started, said that he had worked with hockey players and an outdoor rink before. He said he doubted that people would drop out of hockey.

"I don't understand the purpose of waiting," Boline said. "The plans are to build a very efficient, green rink that's going to produce ice and allow kids to play hockey. ... Hockey is not an outdoor sport any more."

"If we don't take a little time to plan, we could be making that great mistake that's going to last another 10, 20, 30, 40 years," Wolden said. "We hope that there will be an indoor pool."

He said that the Leaf River Ag property might be vacant.

"What does that do to the design change of the community center and the layout that it could undertake?" he asked.

He said he empathized with the hockey association but wanted to keep the big picture in mind.

O'Kane said changing the existing rink would be throwing away $500,000 and 45 days of driving back and forth to Long Prairie.

"To me it seems the hockey building will function better if it's on its own and the hockey organization is in charge of it," Browne said. "And let the community center be wrapped into everything else."

Two audience members spoke up, saying people would be willing to move to surrounding towns for hockey.

Audience member Michelle Motschenbacher said that home tournaments create revenue and that numbers will go down since parents won't allow kids to play outside in subzero temperatures.

Mary Freeland of the Staples-Motley School Board said that the community center board was being timely, not hasty. "I'm thrilled that your Design Team is coming," she said. "But what a design team you have in your hockey association working with your community center board."

Joel Beiswenger said that citizens of Wadena might potentially sue the city council.

"Blood, sweat, and tears built this building," audience member George Behl said. "What could be, or what do we have?" He said the proposed plan would still be better than other towns in the area.

"Let's face it, that hockey was a big driver in that building and continued to be all the way through June 17," Wolden said. "We need to, however, consider the taxpayers in this. Arguably, this could be considered public dollars, public property."

Because of that, he said, they would be required to go through engineering specifications, have an ADA accessible building and go through a bid process.

"It's not going to happen overnight," he said. He said that legal issues could come up.

"Most of the money that built the community center was private dollars," Browne said. She added that they should not be held up to stringent public building standards.

In reference to legal issues, Pederson had written a letter to the council referring to the history of the Wadena Community Center. The property is owned by the nonprofit Tri-County Community Center Inc. and leased yearly to the city of Wadena for public nonprofit use.

"The city, in turn, turned around and hired the Tri-County Community Center Inc. to be the manager of the facility," Pederson said. "And under the terms of the lease, the community center was obligated to insure it, to maintain it, and to hold the city harmless from claims related to the operation."

Pederson said that it was not clear whether the owner (Community Center) or the tenant (city of Wadena) should decide what would happen to the property or whether to rebuild it.

Pederson said that the Community Center and the Hockey Association had a deal which had nothing to do with the transaction between the Community Center and the city of Wadena.

The lease was first entered into on June 25, 1986 and automatically renewed every year including 2010, the letter said.

Because of this agreement, the Tri-County Community Center has tax-exempt status.

"It's very clear from looking at this lease ... that the purpose of this was to exempt the community center from real estate taxes," Pederson said. "There's nothing wrong with that, that's what the statute allows."

He said that the nature of the property is public. He also said that historically, the city council was not involved in decisions about the community center.

Pederson cited a Minnesota statute and a 1977 Attorney General opinion on a similar arrangement in Apple Valley.

Pederson said that the city was named as an additional insured party on the original lease agreement.

Pederson read from paragraph 4 of the lease agreement, which stated, "The Community Center agrees to name the City as an additional named insured on all its policies of insurance, and further agrees to obtain and maintain at its own expense during the term of this Lease comprehensive general liability insurance policy and property loss coverage on the premises for its insurance value."

Pederson said that the actual insurance policy turned out to be different from the agreement on the lease.

"In talking to John [Paulson], what I understand is although we were named insureds for the liability portion of the policy ... the city of Wadena was not named on the property damage portion," Pederson said. "The Community Center board has received the proceeds, and they didn't have the city's name on them, and they are in control of those proceeds at this point."

Pederson said that based on the lease, the city could have a case to exercise authority over the proceeds.

"I hope that it doesn't come down to any sort of adversarial relationship," he said.

"I'm not opposed to calling a special meeting again as early as next week," Wolden said at the end of the meeting.

Paulson agreed to have another meeting at a later date.

O'Kane and Boline could not be reached for further comment.

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