By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – A proposed $11 million indoor ice skating center to be built near Lincoln’s new arena has been tabled by a local governing board in the wake of questions about its projected cost, which were raised by Nebraska Watchdog.
A Nebraska Watchdog story last week questioned the $11 million cost estimate, citing data from a Minnesota ice center industry group that indicate the city would be buying a one-ice-sheet facility for the price of four.
ON ICE: The original renderings of the Breslow Ice Center had two ice rinks, but the project has been scaled down to one. Now the architects have been asked to go back to the drawing boards and see if another ice sheet can be added.
The three-member West Haymarket Joint Public Agency voted Tuesday to table a proposal to contribute $2 million in contingency funds toward construction of the Breslow Ice Center north of the city’s new arena. The JPA oversees financing and construction of Lincoln’s $378 million West Haymarket development, which is anchored by the recently opened Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The ice center got bundled with the arena project back in 2010, when Lincoln voters were asked to approve the downtown redevelopment. But its construction has been delayed while officials focused on getting the arena built and West Haymarket developed.
The focus turned to the ice center late last month when the University of Nebraska regents tabled a proposal to operate the ice center, which would be built on donated city land. The rest of the ice center would be paid for with a $7 million donation from former State Auditor John Breslow (first offered six years ago), $3 million raised by the University of Nebraska Foundation and $1 million from the university.
NU Regent Tim Clare, a member of the JPA, apologized to ice enthusiasts and Breslow for the delays in getting the ice center off the ground.
“This project has taken a long, long time,” he said. “I feel bad about that.”
But he said the JPA has a responsibility to ensure its money would be spent appropriately, referring to news reports questioning the construction and operating cost estimates. While it’s possible the Breslow isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison to those other facilities cited, he said it’s “important to get a grip on what exactly is going on in other communities.”
Specifically, he questioned “why are they able to provide four sheets for $7 million and we’re looking at one sheet for $11 million” and a second ice sheet with a price tag that has wildly varied from $14 million to $23 million.
John Badami, an architect for DLR Group, which helped come up with the cost estimate, mentioned media accounts questioning the price tag, saying it was never their intent to “design one of the least-expensive ice centers in the United States.” He said the cost is influenced by the location, type of ice plant, amenities, backup systems and climate. The Breslow Ice Center would have a backup generator, humidity control and adhere to NU design standards, he said.
The ice center would be built near Lincoln’s new arena and must fit into the historic Haymarket district, he said. The ice center would also be built in a floodplain, so it must be built at least one foot above the 100-year flood elevation. His cost estimates include total project costs, from fixtures and equipment to design costs.
A parade of ice skaters, hockey players and curlers filled the city hall meeting room Tuesday to lobby the JPA to approve the project, preferably with two sheets of ice to help meet demand and attract tournaments. Many ice enthusiasts now travel to other cities such as Fremont and Omaha to practice and play because the only ice arena in Lincoln, the Ice Box, is usually booked or being used by the Lincoln Stars, a USHL team.
Jeff Maul, executive director of the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the ice center would complete the city’s vision of a “sports triangle” that was part of the West Haymarket project advertised to voters in 2010. That vision also included baseball and soccer fields in the area.
Jane Kinsey, spokeswoman for the Watchdogs of Lincoln, said while her group isn’t against an ice rink, it is concerned about the JPA using $2 million in contingency funds when the city the future success of the Pinnacle Bank Arena is unclear.
Clare said last week if the board instead used the $2 million to pay off construction debt earlier, it could pay off the 30-year bonds 7.2 months earlier, assuming revenue comes in as expected.
“May I remind the public also that if the JPA cannot make its bills in the future, that the taxpayers will pay for that,” Kinsey told the JPA.
Mayor Chris Beutler reminded Kinsey the ice center would be an NU operation.
“They’re the main actor in this,” he said. “But we want to get it done if we possibly can do that under reasonable terms.”
Clare said he’s been asking the architects lots of questions, but “We’re not there yet.”
“I want to make the project go,” he said.
He made the motion to table the proposal until the next JPA meeting in March. JPA member and Councilman Doug Emery said while the ice lobby would be disappointed, “I’d rather do it right.”
The mayor called the ice people “longsuffering” and said he understands and believes in their aspirations for the ice center, but acknowledged the need to get more information.
“It is important, politically, believe me, that we’re all together on this,” he said. “We’re pausing to gather strength.”
He also told the standing-room-only crowd to show the same enthusiasm for the project during the next NU regents meeting on March 24.
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