I applaud the Cannon River Civic Center organization for a sustained social media campaign, events, and tours to convince voters to support the referendum to fund construction of a new ice arena.
But, like any political campaign, the information is cherry-picked for positive spin. No project is all good or all bad, but I’m going to be the critic to balance the cheerleaders.
CIVIC CENTER OR ICE ARENA?
The quote below is from the Civic Center website. The minutes of the Ice Arena Advisory Committee, however, tell a different story.
“The Cannon River Civic Center is so much more than an ice arena. The name appropriately conveys the facility’s location along the Cannon Valley Trail portion of the Mill Towns Trail, the multi-use purpose of the space, and the regional hub its presence will create for Northfield, Dundas and surrounding communities.”
At best, the facility might grow beyond the ice rinks over time, but at this point the “Civic Center” idea is imagination (“We imagine a space…” says the website honestly). The mission of the Northfield Ice Arena Advisory Committee committee was to “Serve as an advisory committee to assist and guide staff in a thorough review of current ice arena conditions, assess needs and demands, evaluate costs and alternative facility options resulting in recommendations to be presented to the City Council” and, if you read all the minutes of the Committee like I did (so you don’t have to!), this is exactly what they did.
Perhaps the facility will serve other sports (walkers, table tennis players, lacrosse, softball and baseball are suggested) someday, but the Advisory Committee had a discussion regarding other athletic facility needs within the community and concluded the task force focus was the arena and “not broader athletic facility needs that may or may not exist within the community and no detailed consideration of the events which might use the space.
Not until the final meeting of the Ice Arena Advisory Committee (after 19 months of meetings) when the committee was determining how to present the project to the City Council did the committee say the facility should “Include other civic multi use options to show it as a community asset.”
“The Cannon River Civic Center is a stunning example of a public-private partnership” is a troubling overstatement.
The facility will be financed in large part (about 75%) by taxpayers in Northfield and Dundas. The expected Mighty Ducks Grants were limited to $250,000, but the funding for the grants was not renewed by the State Legislature so that additional public funding is off the table. Further, as a city facility, construction cost increases, operating deficits, and maintenance costs will be taxpayer-funded. The city can raise rental fees and work to market the facility to generate more revenue, but the responsibility rests with taxpayers.
Private contributions include the donation of land valued at $216,000 for tax purposes, but an estimated market value of $850,000. The downside is this property will also stop paying property taxes (currently about $10,000 annually). Those interested in tax policy and process may wonder why the area which was touted as a business park has proved to be undesirable for business and so now is home to the tax-exempt Police Station, Arcadia Charter School, and the ambulance garage to be joined, if this is successful, by the City Arena.
The private funds come from naming rights and advertising with no dollar projections attached and private fundraising of about $3.4 million. Right now, “Several pledges have been made, and we’re looking forward to announcing leadership gifts soon,”.but this arena has been a problem for more than 20 years; 20 years of fundraising and the miracle of compound interest could have been a significant contribution towards the construction and operation of this facility.
For a comparison, the Northfield Public Library expansion funding was 45% private working through The Friends and Foundation of the NPL; the group is also building a permanent endowment to support the library. To have no private funds banked before taking this to the voters is arrogant (Northfield Hockey Association and other ice users) and irresponsible (Northfield City Council).
MONEY FOR PARKS!?
Up to 30% of the sales tax revenue can be used for other parks and recreation projects in Northfield (about $2.6M over 20 years) and Dundas. Although this sounds wonderful at first glance, sales tax proceeds may only be used for capital spending for parks and this allocation raises serious equity issues.
- Capital but not operations: The sales tax could fund, for example, development of the new regional park in the south part of Northfield, but would provide no new funds for maintenance and operations. Your neighborhood park might get new equipment, but won’t get mowed any more often nor will there be any more staff time or new employees to do the work without allocating more tax dollars.
- Equity: 70% of the sales tax goes to an expensive facility for sports a tiny minority play; those sports are expensive sports even if scholarship aid is available. 30% goes to improve the park system which serves everyone else in Northfield at no charge at the point of entry (except the pool). When the skateboard park was under discussion, the fact that it would be used by only a small slice of the population was considered a reason not to do it, but not so for this much, much larger project.
Committee minutes record the telling comment “The fact that ice arenas are not money makers was pointed out. “ The document provided to the City Council lists these numbers:
If you look at that last column there’s a big deficit; breaking even (footnote 5) requires selling an additional 205 hours of ice time at $185 per hour on the secondary market. I’m not sure how the facility is “projected to generate a profit, beginning in its first season”.
Tournaments will indeed bring people to town to eat, shop, sleep, and play. But it takes many millions to generate this impact. Are there other, ways to generate economic activity with a better return on investment?
Mayor Pownell asked for economic impact comparisons of the use of bike trails or arts and cultural events to get accurate information to help guide the process. This information would have been very useful. The arts were considered and the report from Creative Minnesota reviewed by the committee showed “local economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture sector to be about $2.2M for the City of Northfield.”
The Civic Center economic impact analysis projects a $1.8M impact which is comparable to the arts impact, but nowhere is there a comparison of how much Northfield has to spend to realize those amounts. We just don’t know about the value of competing the Mill Towns Trail, for example; $20M would go a long way toward completing that project (and other trails have showed impact on par with the arena projections).
- City failure to plan and budget: The City’s failure to repair, upgrade or replace the Arena is not a new problem, but a recurring practice; Northfield has waited for other City facilities to near failure (Safety Center) or arrive at complete collapse (outdoor pool) before acting to replace them. The City is avoiding responsibility by sending by asking voters to tax themselves without any assurance they’ll take better care of a new facility.
- NHA and other stakeholder failure to raise money: Before the City takes any action, private stakeholders need to show the city and the voters cash upfront; they’ve had at least 20 years.
- Costs and benefits don’t add up: The Civic Center idea has not been researched in any depth, ice sports are expensive and played by few, and the positive economics are hopeful but undermined by the Ice Arena Advisory’s own numbers and comments. The City needs to think carefully about how to provide recreation facilities and opportunities for the greatest number of residents and how much it costs to do so. Promised economic benefits need to be balanced against how much public money is required to generate that impact.
The City and the Cannon River City Center have not made a convincing enough case: Vote NO.
NEXT STEPS: should the City be in the ice arena business?
If the referendum fails, the City will then be faced with the problem of what to do with the failing Arena. If voters defeat this proposal, the next question needs to be whether the City gets out of the ice business and I’d say yes, it should.
1n 1996, the study process included the option “Exit the Arena Market” which was stated was “not feasible.” Yet, for the 20 more years since then, the City has not addressed the Arena’s substantial design and accessibility issues. The lack of action over so many years suggests getting out of the Arena market is not only feasible, but makes much sense for the finances of the city.