The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 7, 2013

Study finds new ice rink, pool most viable

By Mark Fischenich

---- — MANKATO — Numerous new sports facilities are needed and would increase the quality of life and tourism potential in the Mankato area, but only two are likely to be sustainable without ongoing operating subsidies, according to a draft market analysis.

The most desperate need is a new hockey/figure skating rink with one sheet of ice constructed immediately and room for a second to be added in two or three years, concluded the National Association of Sports Commissions in a study paid for by the All Seasons Arena governing board. A competition-quality swimming pool is also noticeably absent in the Mankato area and is likely to receive heavy use from youth and high school and college varsity teams if constructed.

The author of the study said the grandest vision — a Greater Mankato Regional Athletic Complex with four indoor tennis courts, an indoor track, three basketball/volleyball courts, two sheets of ice, an indoor bubble with two turf fields, an eight-lane swimming pool, plus meeting and administrative space — encapsulates what various sports advocates say they need.

"So, if selection of the elements to be built rests solely on need, all should be included," the report states.

But if the cost of building and operating the facilities is considered, the choices become more complicated. The market study is meant to be followed by a financial analysis of all or some of the ideas.

"We are concluding that it is unlikely that a dome or a multi-court building, or an indoor tennis complex will cover expenses," the report states. "Every one of these is needed. Each will contribute substantially to the quality of life and the viability of the sports served. It becomes a local issue as to how far to go in terms of additional study. We can only suggest that the rink and pool have the best opportunities to reach a sustainable level of operation."

The rinks at All Seasons Arena are so heavily used that some adult recreational hockey is being played past midnight, and youth hockey teams are limited to practicing substantially fewer hours than national hockey associations recommend. That high demand also means healthy revenue for the facility, which is operating at a surplus and has a $675,000 fund balance to cover cash flow during slower summer months and large expenditures such as new Zamboni machines.

Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said it's likely a second arena could also cover typical operating expenses. Generating the revenue to cover debt service on a multi-million-dollar arena is more of a challenge.

A new swimming facility wouldn't likely operate in the black, but it could be combined with a new YMCA in Mankato's rapidly growing eastern side and would likely be used — and financially supported — by Bethany Lutheran College, Minnesota State University and high schools, according to the report.

"The best partner for such a venture would be the YMCA," the report states. "They have identified the need for a new pool, are looking to expand to the east side, and have significant expertise with all forms of aquatic sports ... ."

A facility similar to the one envisioned was recently completed in York, Pa., for just under $10 million.

Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson and North Mankato Councilor Bob Freyberg, who serve on the All Seasons Arena Board, said the board will decide in a week whether to accept the final draft of the study or seek further revisions. But the ASA Board doesn't intend to decide the fate of various proposed facilities or the future of a multi-sports complex.

"That is not necessarily our mandate to make that decision," Anderson said.

The goal of the board, Freyberg said, was to give various sports groups facts and analysis by an independent outside expert and suggested the final report be sent to swimming, soccer, baseball, softball, hockey, figure-skating and other organizations.

North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen, meeting with Anderson and Freyberg as part of the two cities' Intergovernmental Committee, suggested more than forwarding the reports.

There should be a sports facilities "summit," Dehen said. "Bring 'em all together."

As for the ice rink — however the final decision is made — it needs to be made soon, Dehen said. The Mankato Area Hockey Association, which is offering $300,000 to help construct a new building, is so desperate for more ice that it's planning to use that money to "throw up a pole barn" by 2015 so players will have a place to practice.