SUBMITTED BY: Albertville Mayor Jillian Hendrickson and Albertville Council Member Walter Hudson
St. Michael and Albertville, two cities which operate in many ways as a single community, have maintained a complicated but mutually beneficial relationship. One of the most visible expressions of this partnership has been the STMA Arena, where both the community Youth Hockey Association and high school hockey teams share ice time.
The arena was constructed in the late ’90s with a single sheet of ice. Talk of building a second sheet began almost immediately, and has persisted ever since. But the path toward constructing a second sheet winds through complicated political territory.
Much of the difficulty arises from the arena’s joint ownership. Both cities and the STMA school district own equal shares of the arena, each contributing toward its operation and upkeep. Building a second sheet with joint ownership means each entity must agree on a number of things, from the size of the project to the funding plan.
This past spring the Kraft Hockeyville USA campaign named our STMA Arena as a national contender in a competition to win dollars for arena upgrades. Our community came together by voting multiple times to secure winnings of $40,000 for arena improvements. This award money helped build momentum and propel discussion of a second sheet forward. The STMA Youth Hockey Association approached the STMA Arena Board, a governing body with representatives from each council and the school board, to announce that they had met a fundraising benchmark set by both cities five years ago.
Specifically, the association had arranged to provide $1,000,000 in seed money to begin construction on the second sheet. That included the $40,000 from Kraft Hockeyville, an all but sure $250,000 grant from the state’s Mighty Ducks fund, money previously raised by the association, and a $500,000 line of credit against which the association would raise additional funds.
Those of us serving on the arena board felt that the project deserved fresh consideration. So each member took the idea back to our respective entities and began a laborious process of exploration and consensus-seeking.
Something like this doesn’t happen all at once, and certainly not in a single public meeting. Each entity had to agree to come together for an all-encompassing powwow during which goals were set for yet another meeting down the road. Each entity had their own meetings in the interim where discussion of the second sheet occurred. All of these meetings complied with Minnesota’s open meetings statute, which requires advance public notice and publicized meeting minutes among other transparencies.
From our perspective, the perspective of the elected officials and staff involved in the process, everything was above board and thoroughly considered. However, that perspective was not shared by some in the community once they learned of progress toward construction of the second sheet.
Some believe the project was moving forward too fast and without proper input from the public. Many wondered why the matter was not put up for a referendum. Many more wondered about the particulars of the project, which were under development and therefore yet to be firmly identified. How much would it cost? How much would taxes go up? Was that reflected in property tax statements recently received?
Speculative answers were provided from various sources on social media, with estimates low and high depending upon who was offering them. None of these answers were right. Neither were they necessarily wrong. The information required to provide accurate answers simply did not exist. We had not yet decided how much would need to be spent to bring the project to fruition. Even if we had, we could not know how particular properties might be assessed in the future. The best possible guess was still just a guess, and that meant advocates for or against the second sheet could credibly claim just about anything.
These circumstances fostered an unfortunate situation where community members began to clash over hypothetical scenarios. Advocates for the second sheet claimed the cost would be minimal. Those against the process claimed it would take food off of taxpayer’s tables. Questions went unanswered for lack of solid information, and speculation filled the void.
Now it appears as though progress toward a second sheet has stalled. The school district decided on Monday night to withdraw their support for a proposed tax abatement plan which served as one of several linchpins holding the project together. It is not immediately clear where the discussion will go from here. However, the need for additional ice time for both the hockey association and the school district remains.
Into this pause, we write hoping to foster reconciliation. One of us spoke in favor of the second sheet. The other spoke out against it. While we may not agree on the wisdom of the tax abatement plan that was recently considered, we each hold a sincere desire for our neighbors to retain trust in a transparent and accountable process. Everyone involved in this discussion seeks what they believe will prove best for the community. But as elected officials, we must continue to listen to what you think will prove best.
Perhaps that means more than simply complying with the open meetings requirements. Perhaps it means more than posting links to agendas and minutes on our city websites, or video taping our meetings, or posting notice of upcoming discussions. That’s the bare minimum, putting out information for you to find if and when you happen to look. Perhaps we should also be actively soliciting feedback on projects like the second sheet, going out of our way to make sure we get feedback instead of assuming no complaint means approval.
The problem is that such active communication requires dedicated time from already stretched municipal staff. We may have to hire someone, or contract a service, to help us bolster our communication with you. That too will cost money, something we might take under consideration during next year’s budget discussions.
In the meantime, we appreciate your ideas for how to make these processes better. We want to make sure your voice is heard. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or contact our colleagues whose information can be found on their entity’s web page. What kind of communication do you expect above and beyond what has already been provided? How much would you be willing to see spent to maintain it? What can we do in the meantime to help keep you informed?