City council, school board and joint governance meetings around town have all had a common theme as of late: the expansion of St. Michael-Albertville’s ice arena to include a second sheet of ice.
Both cities and the school district seem to agree that the current arena does not meet the school district’s or community’s needs.
In a recent presentation, the school district calculated that STMA’s high school boys hockey players lose approximately one full year of practice time over their three years in the program compared with some neighboring teams due to ice shortages. Add to that a growing girls’ program (which is currently combined in a co-op with Monticello, Annandale and Maple Lake) and other skaters ages kindergarten-ninth grade vying for practice and game times, and talk of expansion is reaching a fever pitch.
“There’s a strong consensus on the board that there is a strong and overriding community and school district need for a better ice facility,” school board chair Doug Birk said.
The million-dollar question, or more accurately, the $8 million-dollar question, for all involved parties is how would an expansion like this be funded? The youth hockey association is making preparations for a $1 million contribution to the project, which is roughly estimated to cost between $5-8 million.
At this point, a tax abatement levy seems to be the best option for funding the project. A tax abatement levy is a seldom-used financing option where one of the two participating cities (likely Albertville) could levy funds for the project without voter approval and then the other two parties (the school district and the city of St. Michael) would each pay for 1/3 of the levy through property taxes.
On Monday evening, the school board reached an initial consensus that the district would be open to supporting an abetment levy in conjunction with the cities of St. Michael and Albertville for a $5-7 million arena, subject to additional details to follow. The estimated annual tax increase for a $200,000 residential property would be $10 to $14 for the school portion of this levy.
The city of St. Michael, with a concern for cost at the forefront, voted 3-2 to fund a second sheet of ice up to a $5 million project. This $5 million figure would include the hockey association’s $1 million contribution. City administrator Steve Bot said that with these funding limits in place it would equate to an approximately one percent increase on the city portion of a St. Michael resident’s property taxes.
Albertville voted 4-1 Monday evening to approve up to $7 million in funding between the three entities. For Albertville residents, taxes would go up approximately $44 annually for the project on a $200,000 property.
Besides the tax abatement levy, the other financing option would be a voter-approved referendum where the school district would need to take ownership of the arena and have financing approved by the voters. The benefit of this approach would be that the project would be funded at nearly 60 percent by the state of Minnesota through the school district levy equalization program, meaning local taxpayers would have a smaller tax increase.
However, the school board has made clear that they would not bring an ice arena funding measure to voters before the year of an operating levy request for fear of voter fatigue. This potential future levy request is years away, as the district passed a 10-year levy in 2011.
The youth hockey association said they currently have $250,000 set aside for a new arena. The association found out this week they received a $250,000 grant that they applied for through the Mighty Ducks grant program, which brings their arena fund total to $500,000. Chris Hansen, chairman for the STMA Youth Hockey Association’s second sheet of ice committee, said the association received a guarantee for a $500,000 line of credit for an 18-month term, but said they plan not to use most or even any of that line of credit, instead raising the remaining funds through corporate fundraising.
“We would go into full fundraising mode for an arena once we know there is going to be an arena,” Hansen said. “It’s tough to go out and gain dollars from a community or a business if there really isn’t going to be anything built.”
Albertville city administrator Adam Nafstad said he believes everyone is still in information-gathering mode.
“It’s a good discussion,” he said. “It’s an amenity that’s obviously very important to the community. A project like this is always going to be a challenge to make it happen, there’s not going to be an ideal time.”
“At this point, we don’t have an actual proposal in front of us, we don’t have a cost estimate in front of us,” school board chair Birk said. “Nobody is going to spend money to do an actual estimate or proposal, which is quite expensive, without some type of pulse check to see if the parties are even open to this possibility. There’s still a long road ahead.”
Now, it seems, the pulse check has shown some strong indicators that the three parties are willing to look towards the next step in this process. The parties will talk more about the possible second sheet of ice at a joint governance meeting coming up at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30 at the Performing Arts Center of the STMA High School.