Scheels Arena general manager floats idea of asking Fargo Park District to help fund two sheets of ice
FARGO – The Park Board here will study using tax money to help pay for an expansion of Scheels Arena – a privately financed facility whose backers have said would not use public funds.
The arena’s general manager floated the idea at a Fargo Park District facilities committee meeting Wednesday, asking officials to consider partially funding two new ice sheets at the south Fargo arena.
Three of the Park Board’s five commissioners said on Wednesday the proposal is worth considering, as a public-private partnership could save the Park District money on ice space it wanted to build anyway.
“I’m looking at this as a possible cost savings and it enhances a property we currently own,” said Park Commissioner Mary C. Johnson. “So I want to see what they come up with.”
‘A difficult situation’
Though private donations and loans paid for the $25 million hockey arena that opened in 2008, it is owned by the Fargo Park District. Park officials agreed to own the facility to shield it from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes. But park officials have said its deal with the private nonprofit that manages the arena, Metro Sports Foundation, doesn’t obligate the Park District to pay off the debt on the arena if it falters.
Park Board President Joe Deutsch said contributing public funds to an expansion would be tricky and will require public input before a decision is made.
He said it all comes back to the original plans for the arena. Backers said in 2007 that four additional ice rinks for youth hockey would eventually be added, which hasn’t happened.
“The question comes back to, well, I thought there was supposed to be four, not two, and I thought you were going to get them paid for yourself,” Deutsch said. “So it’s a difficult situation, no doubt about it.”
Scheels Arena General Manager Jon Kram said in ballpark figures, the Park District could be asked for about $2 million, but he declined to give a total cost of the expansion, saying it varied too greatly depending on what was included.
Park staff will now work with Scheels staff on an official proposal to better determine the cost and feasibility of the project, said Jim Larson, the park district’s finance and human resources director.
Until that proposal is ready, Larson said he’s not sure if the district can even afford to chip in.
“Our board is not providing any support to the project at this point,” he said.
Rinks now or later?
Kram said Scheels Arena has been mulling adding one sheet of ice to help alleviate pressure brought on by increased programming, such as the two-year agreement to house North Dakota State University basketball while the Bison Sports Arena is renovated.
As they were raising funds to add one sheet, the idea came up to seek a public-private partnership to add two rinks, Kram said. Each rink could have 500 seats. Kram declined to say how much money they have raised.
Deutsch said there is a need for indoor ice rinks for youth hockey. The Park District has four indoor sheets today and was planning on building more within the next five to 10 years, he said. A collaborative effort with the Scheels Arena could expedite those plans and because costs would be shared, it would be much cheaper for the district, Deutsch said.
“At the end of the day, there is going to be a need in the future for more ice,” Deutsch said.
But he said the situation remains sticky because of the original plan that Fargo taxpayers wouldn’t be asked to help fund additional sheets of ice at Scheels Arena. Fargo voters rejected plans to build publicly funded hockey arenas in 2000 and 2005.
The arena has also struggled to cash flow. Two years ago, when a gift from an undisclosed donor helped seal a deal to restructure its debt, the Metro Sports Foundation still owed about $23 million on the $25 million facility.
Kram said newfound turn toward public funding is “a topic that’s going to have to be addressed.”
“I look at it a little differently that – let’s say they control it, own, operate it. It’s potentially going to save them money than doing sheets elsewhere,” he said.
If the district can save millions of dollars building two sheets now instead of in 10 years, “I’m sure the public will understand that,” Johnson said.
Park Commissioner Joel Vettel said the board has to weigh its history with the Scheels Arena along with the need for ice. An opportunity to use private funds has to be studied, said Vettel, who serves on the facilities committee.
“I think that if we don’t at least look at it, then we wouldn’t be doing our due diligence, especially if we know in the future we might be on the hook for the entire cost of additional ice,” he said.
Park Commissioner Barb Johnson said it seems like Scheels Arena wants to fast-track the project, whereas she wants to allow time to assess its feasibility and get public input.
“It’s so premature,” she said. “I don’t know where the funds would come from. I don’t know how long it would take us to raise funds if we decide to do it.”
Park Commissioner Matt Magness could not be reached for comment.
Deutsch said an official proposal could be back in front of the facilities committee at its August or September meeting. As soon as a proposal is ready, he said holding a public meeting is a top priority.
“The details will all be transparent, black and white,” he said.
If the Park District ultimately says “no” to a public-private partnership, Kram said Scheels Arena would “go back to the drawing board” to decide how to move forward.