Hundreds of hockey players, coaches and fans from around the state flocked to the Soldotna Sports Center over the weekend to watch what's arguably the crown jewel of Alaska's high school sports season, the state 4A hockey championships.
What many of those in attendance didn't know however, is that the center is facing an economic crunch that could endanger the building's status as a mecca for local hockey enthusiasts.
Despite near-constant use during the winter, the 20-year-old arena operates at an annual loss of roughly $140,000 to the city of Soldotna. Each year, the aging facility costs more and more to maintain.
At recent Soldotna City Council meetings, city officials have begun looking into the future and asking serious questions about the future of a building that's one of the cornerstones of the local sports scene.
The council recently approved a preliminary plan to spend $150,000 to upgrade the center's refrigeration system, but some members of the council indicated that the expenditure is far from a done deal.
"I am not endorsing the $150,000 fix at the Sports Center," council member Sharon Moock said at Wednesday's city council meeting.
In fact, Moock has requested that city officials provide a detailed breakdown of what the center would cost to operate without any ice at all.
In January, Moock said she's worried that several factors, including the possibility that the school district could make cuts to its cocurricular activity budget, could force the city into a situation where maintaining ice may no longer be an option.
An upgrade to the center's refrigeration system could cost $150,000.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
On Friday, Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker acknowledged that council members have begun to explore a variety of options for the center's future.
"Some of the council members have raised the question of where they want to go," Boedeker said.
However, simply taking the ice out may not solve the city's problems.
According to the rough breakdown provided by city staff, without an ice rink, the center would save an estimated $320,000 in costs but would lose $273,000 in revenue from ice rental. That means that even if the city were to discontinue ice at the building, taxpayers would still be on the hook for nearly $100,000 of red ink.
The refrigeration question is one the city will have to deal with in the near future.
The current system requires near-constant upkeep, and the two options available to the city the "$150,000 fix" and a cheaper, $50,000 alternative have their drawbacks.
Boedeker explained that if the city spends the larger sum, the refrigeration system would be able to be operated by just about anyone. Replacing the control system only would save the city initially, but would likely be much more difficult to maintain and operate.
"We can either replace the control system for $50,000 ... or we can say, 'look, we don't want to do the complex system and spend $150,000 to basically build a system we can train someone to maintain in about two weeks," " Boedeker said. He said the center can get by indefinitely without fixing the refrigeration control system, but manual operation could increase costs at the facility even more.
The council adopted an ordinance last week that appropriates money for the more expensive fix. However, the council would still have to award a contract for the work, and that won't happen until more discussion takes place.
Something the city has not yet looked into could include using funds earmarked for the upcoming Arctic Winter Games to improve the rink's refrigeration system. However, Boedeker said he has not entered into any discussions with the games officials, and banking on money that has not been earmarked or even proposed is not something he's willing to do.
"In my view, it's kind of speculative," Boedeker said. "There might be a pot of money that materializes, and if it does, I certainly wouldn't hesitate to take some of it."
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