East Bethel council hashes out ice arena concerns

East Bethel City Council continued discussion about the management contract for the East Bethel Ice Arena, which has operated at a loss since the city acquired it in the early 1990s at a workshop meeting May 14.

The current contract with Gibson Management Services expires in July and is due for a periodic review, which includes asking for proposals to provide arena management. The city expects for the successful bidder to operate the facility profitably and generate funds needed for capital improvements.

Three entities submitted proposals and had representatives at the May 7 council meeting including: Gibson Management, Rink Management Services Corporation and the North Metro Community Association of St. Francis.

At the workshop, City Administrator Jack Davis said the now-forming NMCA had withdrawn its proposal; representatives told him the organization might try again in the future and for now would like to be involved in a committee capacity.

Officials seemed to agree, with Councilmembers Heidi Moegerle and Ron Koller absent from the workshop, that local hockey players are the main users of the ice arena and should be involved in its planning and operations.

Numbers, contract talk

The ice arena needs to make more than $223,000 each year to break even. The current management cost is $80,000, and Gibson proposed remaining at that price, while RMSC proposed to do the job for $94,500. Both companies said the fee is negotiable.

Officials acknowledged RMSC as highly capable but shared concern about being the company’s smallest client. They recognized a need for change and looked for signs in Gibson’s proposal of how that will happen. The members favored the idea of shortening the contract term to one year so that adjustments could be made sooner if performance is unsatisfactory.

Mayor Bob DeRoche asked if negotiations had begun yet. Davis said East Bethel must first agree on where to start, suggesting maybe a fee of $70,000 and revenue-splitting incentives beyond the break-even point.

Councilmember Tom Ronning pointed out that without cell-tower lease revenue as a subsidy, the facility operated about $20,000 in the red last year. He said that the ice arena is the hockey place for three communities – East Bethel, St. Francis and Oak Grove – but is operated and maintained by the city.

Mayor DeRoche agreed the arena has been a financial concern for a long time and said it would be nice if other communities could help. Davis said East Bethel can ask the other cities to pitch in, but he thinks it’s possible to “break even” within the next few years by increasing ice sales and dry-floor activities.

Talk reveals need

The council shared a common concern about the new management partner asking for improvements in order to fulfill the negotiated contract. Discussion made it clear the city does not intend to pay for improvements.

Davis said the arena needs a new front door, more locker-room ventilation, lobby facelift, bathroom renovation, new hot-water heater, better compliance with ADA standards and other items he described as needed to “improve and enhance the image of the arena.”

Davis said the Zamboni is 20 years old and reaching the end of its useful life, with a replacement costing between $60,000 and $100,000. The arena will also need a new sign, since the current one is too far from the road for passersby to read.

Davis said the city has made some gradual improvements, such as installing a new overhead door and improving the ‘infrared’ heat. He said East Bethel also replaced lighting with funds from an efficiency grant. DeRoche suggested investigating more grants.

Details emerge

Todd Gibson of Gibson Management answered questions at the workshop and said he sends letters to solicit advertising from area businesses and hockey-association parents but despite reasonable rates, doesn’t get many takers.

The group discussed increasing recreational skate time, but those typically have low attendance. Davis said the arena does not rent or loan skates and that may be one reason why open-ice events don’t draw more people.

Councilmember Tim Harrington said he finds that many citizens don’t know East Bethel has a hockey rink; some have suggested creating an outdoor rink near the ice arena.

Ronning asked how users communicate with management, and Davis said people contact either Gibson or the rink manager. Gibson said the Web site is up, running and linked to Facebook.

The council favored the idea of forming a committee focused on the arena’s success.

Gibson said it is difficult to coordinate ice times with existing teams while also trying to entice new teams to come. Everyone wants prime time, and the Super Rink in Blaine absorbs most of the overflow.

The council members asked about having a skate-sharpening or retail shop, and Gibson said it’s been offered in the past. He said there was one employee to do it, and everyone seems to want their skates sharpened at the same time, just before they go onto the ice.

Before adjourning the workshop, officials agreed to begin negotiations with Gibson and RMSC.

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