Why is Lincoln’s proposed ice center so pricey?

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Sue Salter has fielded multiple questions from Nebraskans about the $8.5 million ice center her nonprofit is building in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Namely, how is her group building an ice center that costs $2.5 million less than the one being proposed in Lincoln, even though it will have two more ice sheets and almost twice as much square footage and seating as the $11 million one-sheet indoor ice skating center Lincoln officials are considering building north of the city’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena?

Salter, executive director of the Ice Sports Association that’s building the SCHEELS IcePlex in Sioux Falls, is at a loss to explain the price differences.

ON ICE: The original renderings of the Breslow Ice Center had two ice rinks, but the project has been scaled down to one, even though by some estimates the budget is high enough to build four rinks.

But she points to information from an industry group of Minnesota ice arena managers that also indicates Lincoln’s proposed ice center is pricey. The Minnesota Ice Arena Managers Association estimates the average cost to build a one-sheet ice arena is $3.8 million, two-sheet arena is $7.2 million, three-sheet arena $9 million and four-sheet arena $11 million.

If those numbers are accurate, Lincoln is looking at building one ice skating rink for the price of four.

Dean Mulso, who runs an ice center in Burnsville, Minn., and works for MIAMA, said it generally costs $500,000 to $750,000 to put in one sheet of ice plus $1 million to $2 million for a building.

“That’s pretty much bare bones,” he said.

Add four locker rooms, bathrooms, concessions, office space and seating for 500 to 750 and the price goes up to about $3.5 million, not counting land costs. When told the Breslow project has an $11 million budget for one-sheet facility, he had one: “Wow.”

“That’s expensive,” he said.

Plans to build a Lincoln ice center kicked off six years ago with a $7 million donation from former State Auditor John Breslow, former minority owner of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln would own and operate the ice center, which would be built on city land north of the city’s new arena. The city would donate the land and contribute $40,000 toward operating costs for the first five years.

Initially, the ice center was to have been open by 2010, but the center languished after it was bundled with the West Haymarket downtown development and the focus was on building the arena and surrounding infrastructure.

Last week, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents declined to approve ice center plans in the hope of negotiating a better deal with the city. The joint public agency overseeing the West Haymarket is now reportedly considering upping its donation to the ice center from $1 million to $2 million.

But nobody questioned the cost estimates. It’s not clear why the price tag is so much higher than that of the Sioux Falls IcePlex, which will be used for youth hockey, figure skaters and the public; Lincoln’s Breslow Ice Center would be used by UNL hockey, curling and broomball clubs, intramural sports leagues and public recreational skating. Both ice centers are getting the underlying land for free.

The IcePlex is about 45 percent bid, still on budget and scheduled to open in September, Salter said. She said it was designed as efficiently as possible, and went through months of schematic designs.

The one-story IcePlex with a raised mezzanine will have three ice sheets with eight locker rooms and about 1,200 seats, at least 600 permanent seats and the rest likely portable. It has 100,000 square feet, compared to Breslow’s 55,000.

Sioux Falls has a U.S. Hockey League team that will practice in the facility but won’t play games in it.

“Ours is a community facility,” Salter said.

According to NU program statement, the Breslow center would have team locker rooms, a training room, referee locker rooms, coaches offices, a warming lobby, rental skate storage, a pro shop, concessions and meeting rooms. An elevated viewing area, akin to the IcePlex mezzanine, might be added if there’s enough money. The NU documents refer to a head-coach office, team locker room and showers and training room.

Is it possible the facility is being designed as a practice facility should UNL eventually add a Division 1 hockey program? The NU program statement says there are no plans for such a program and the school “does not contemplate Division I hockey.”

UNL spokesman Steve Smith said it’s important to note the proposed budget is an estimate.

“Having received feedback from the board, we are continuing to work with the stakeholders in this project to find an acceptable way forward,” he said in an emailed statement. “Until we reach a point where the project is approved and finalized, discussing specifics about the project or its estimated costs would not be prudent.”

The Sioux Falls ice center is being funded with $5 million in private donations, $1.5 million in equipment paid for by the city and a $750,000 gift from Scheels. (They’re still raising money, hoping to get more naming rights and will have a small mortgage.)

Mulso said the price can increase depending on the size of offices, the lobby, the type of building materials and amenities contemplated. If the designer hasn’t done a lot of ice rinks, they may be off base, he said.

Originally, the Breslow ice center was to have two sheets of ice, but the proposal before NU only had one with the ability to add another sheet and seating down the road. Salter said the least efficient way to run ice facilities is to have single sheets of ice under multiple roofs around town.

“You gain a lot of efficiencies by having more than one sheet” by saving on staffing, ice-making equipment, heating and ventilation, she said. The Ice Box, home of USHL junior hockey team, the Lincoln Stars, would remain open near UNL’s Devaney Center.

MIAMA estimates the annual operating cost for a one-sheet facility at $300,000 — about one-third the $793,000 Lincoln projects. That’s more than MIAMA’s projection for a four-sheet center, $750,000. Mulso’s operating budget is about $1 million per year, higher than Breslow is projecting.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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