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Decisions slow to come on arena

City council and school board members seem to have some affection for the city's Schmitz-Maki Arena, but beyond that there's still not a very clear idea of what the future might hold for indoor ice in Farmington.

The two government boards heard recommendations Feb. 3 from a task force assembled to consider future ice arena needs in the city. The four options task force members presented ranged from doing nothing to building a new, two-sheet ice arena elsewhere in the city. No funding options were provided, though task force facilitator Craig Kronholm suggested a "stripped down" arena could be built for around $9 million. Nor was a plan on hand for what the city might do if the failing ice equipment stops working entirely.

But none of the elected officials on hand last week seemed to embrace any of the options. They raised questions about whether the task force had explored a partnership with the city of Lakeville, or with private businesses in the city. And while many agreed the city could use a second sheet of ice there was not much enthusiasm for abandoning Schmitz-Maki.

"It's something the community has invested in for so many years," school board member Veronica Walter said. "It's something this town has built itself around."

One option presented last week would convert Schmitz-Maki for other uses like tennis, indoor soccer or lacrosse.

Proposals that called for a new, two-sheet arena seemed to have little support, though. School board member Tim Burke and Farmington resident Leon Orr both described the proposal as a miniaturized version of the sports and wellness facility the school district proposed as part of its new high school. Voters defeated that plan.

Further complicating matters is a proposal by an outside group to build a two-sheet ice arena as part of what one person involved in the project calls a "destination," possibly including a hotel or motel. That proposal intrigued some elected officials, but it is also far from reality. There are no formal plans, and no big-picture idea has been publicly presented.

City and school representatives encouraged developer John Colby to continue with his planning, but they also plan to do their own work in case the Colby proposal falls through.

It's not clear yet exactly what direction that work will take. Elected officials supported keeping Schmitz-Maki Arena, but they also wanted to look at adding a second sheet of ice there. Or maybe building a second arena elsewhere in the city.

The task force considered building a second, single-sheet arena. But Kronholm said it would be less efficient to run separate arenas, and suggested forcing teams to drive to separate facilities might make it harder to attract high-end tournaments.

And city administrator Peter Herlofsky said adding on to Schmitz-Maki could create environmental problems with the nearby Vermillion River and parking problems on a site that already fills up quickly.

At the end of the 90-minute meeting mayor Todd Larson asked Herlofsky and school superintendent Brad Meeks to look how the city and the district might pay for any projects. Whatever those projects might be.

Herlofsky and Meeks planned to meet this week. Herlofsky said the funding options they consider will likely be flexible to accommodate whatever direction elected officials want to take.

"Once we decide on a method, it's just how many zeros you put behind it," he said. "The same financial plan can be adjusted."

Herlofsky said there will have to be a decision on at least the short-term future of Schmitz-Maki Arena within 45 days if there are to be repairs to guarantee the arena will be in working order next fall.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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