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  Sunday January 25th, 2015    

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City rescues Bud King Ice Arena (09/03/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. The crisply painted ice sheet belies a dilapidated ice system at Bud King Ice Arena, said rink manager Jim Martin (right). Winona Area Youth Hockey Association President Michael Slaggie (left) urged the Winona City Council to fund repairs to the rink.

When the time comes to start establishing a new ice sheet every August, Bud King Ice Arena Rink Manager Jim Martin slides hefty free-weight plates off of the bench press bar at his house and brings them along to work. The pieces of Martin's home gym play a crucial role in the formation of the rink's ice sheet. He uses them to weigh down the buckling pipes of the rink's refrigeration system.

"It looks good now," Martin said in an interview, gesturing at the rink's base layers of ice and paint, "but come in here at the start of the season when I'm working on it…it's outlived its life."

Last Tuesday night the Winona City Council voted to make a last-minute addition of $1.4 million to the city's proposed 2015 budget. A $1.4 million project to overhaul the dilapidated rink floor and replace the refrigeration system for the Bud King Ice Arena had been planned for 2016 in the draft capital improvement plan (CIP) that was presented earlier this month. However, pleas from the Winona Area Youth Hockey Association (WAYHA) swayed the City Council to act now. The WAYHA operates the city-owned Bud King Ice Arena.

What's wrong with the ice rink?

Beneath the ice, the Bud King rink has a sand floor embedded with plastic pipes. Refrigerant running through the pipes keeps the rink floor below the freezing point. In the decades since the rink was built in 1988, metal ties fastening the pipes to steel framework below have corroded and other parts of the rink's framework have pulled apart. Now, the pipes buckle every spring when the rink is allowed to thaw, and sections protrude up out of the sand like the humps of the Loch Ness monster. That makes it difficult to create a smooth ice surface at summer's end.

The refrigeration system has already survived six years longer than its expected life span, according to a engineering report prepared for the city of Winona in 2012. Martin and WAYHA leaders say there is a real possibility the system may fail midseason, leaving young figure skaters, peewee hockey players, and the Winona Senior High School teams without a place to practice and hold games.

"A full replacement of the system is needed now, or will be needed in the near future to assure reliability and safety of the systems. There is no cost effective solution to improve the existing ice system," engineering consultants wrote in the 2012 report. In addition, an international ban on the refrigerant used at the rink, R-22, will take effect in 2020. R-22 is a type of ozone-depleting gas. Decades ago, the U.S. and other countries signed a treaty agreeing to phase out the use of the chemical. So, the refrigeration system must be replaced before 2020 for the Bud King Ice Arena to continue operation.

WAYHA urges; council agrees

WAYHA President Michael Slaggie maintained that earlier this year he was informed by city leaders that the Bud King project would be included in the 2015 budget. When the new CIP was released, WAYHA leaders saw the project was scheduled for 2016. They spoke with all six of the council members and Mayor Mark Peterson, urging them not to wait.

"I don't think this project can be done any cheaper than it can this year," Slaggie said, adding that the price of new refrigeration systems will probably rise as 2020 approaches and thousands of rinks across the country are scrambling to replace their systems. Currently, there are state grants available for R-22 replacement, but the grant funds will likely be awarded quickly and then be gone. Finally, interest rates are at historic lows right now, but are likely to rise in the near future. "The longer the city waits, the more it will pay in interest costs," Slaggie explained.

In addition, Slaggie raised the possibility that WAYHA members would donate volunteer labor to the project. "We're willing to explore pretty much any way that we can assist with the project in a non-financial capacity since we don't have the reserves for it," he said.

When discussion turned to the recreation fund at last week's budget review meeting, Winona City Manager Judy Bodway handed out new budget summaries that included the ice arena project. "This was not in the original budget that I presented to you, but I wanted to give you an option," she explained to the council members.

Council members requested an estimate of the tax impact for families, but unanimously supported adding the project to the 2015 budget.

"I think it comes down to does Winona want ice?" said council member Gerry Krage. "If you want ice, it's 1.4 [million dollars]."

"I think we want ice," Peterson replied. "I think it's a great program. I think we've got an obligation."

Thurley agreed that the city has an obligation to maintain the building.

"I've got questions, but I want to save the rink," said council member Michelle Alexander, who participated via telephone. "The hockey association has already put a lot of money into the building and the responsibility for this repair should fall on the city."

"I don't think we have a lot of choice," Peterson said. "We can do it next year or in five years … We're going to have to do it at some point."

Alexander added that the city should take advantage of the fact that with a concrete floor, the space will be usable for summer events. She noted that currently the association keeps rental fees paid by universities. Bodway responded saying that if the city funds the project, changes to the city's contract with WAYHA should be considered.

Under a management agreement between WAYHA and the city, WAYHA is responsible for maintaining and operating the rink and the city is responsible for maintenance of the structure. According to Slagge, over the last decade, the hockey association has spent millions of its own money to operate and upgrade the rink, including constructing a $450,000 addition to the building and replacing the dehumidification systems, scoreboards, lights, dasher boards, and insulation.

"Since the rink was built, the hockey association has done its part and gone above and beyond its responsibility to maintain the building," Slaggie said. "For the first time since 1988, there's a responsibility that falls on the city side."

The City Council is expected to vote on adopting its preliminary budget and property tax levy on Tuesday, September 2, at 6:30 p.m. at city hall at Fourth and Lafayette streets. The final budget and levy is usually set in December. In between those dates, the council may decrease the levy, but may not increase it. 


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