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Hockey association struggles with arena finances

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Parents and kids grab hockey bags and sticks out of a variety of vehicles and walk through the softly falling snow to the arena to meet up with teammates and friends.

The packed lobby buzzes with conversation from people wearing their home team colors — green, purple, burgundy all standing next to each other — as they read the eraser board for the locker room number. The smell of ice mingles with the popcorn from concession and the pungent aroma of the gear wafts through the cool air as hockey bags go by.

The sound of skate blades slicing through the ice as teams battle for the puck mingle with the parents cheering enthusiastically from the stands for their favorite player creates feelings of anticipation as the next teams eagerly await their turn.

Another hockey tournament weekend is underway in Cloquet.

Every weekend from the beginning of December to mid-February, roughly 16 teams and their families converge in Cloquet at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

Many of the teams are from out of the area and lodge at local hotels and gather between games at local restaurants for a bite to eat.

Yet, despite the busy weekends, the Cloquet Area Hockey Association (CAHA) struggles to pay the bills at the arena.

According to CAHA President Mick Maslowski, the biggest concern is the funding for the largest of the bills, mainly the utilities.

The utility cost for the 2014-2015 season was $140,000, with an 8.5 percent increase expected for the current season, bringing the cost over $150,000. To try to cover the rising costs, the association raised CAHA members fees as well as the lease for the Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team residing at the rink.

“I feel we are good stewards with the money,” Maslowski insisted.

The association has implemented several smaller projects over the last few years to help save money, such as installing LED lighting in the lobby area and motion lights throughout the arena, including the bathrooms.

They also refurbished the 22-year-old Pine Valley Arena zamboni recently, which should buy them another six to 10 years before they need to purchase a new one for about $125,000.

The money for the smaller projects came from charitable gambling pull tab money (from the Foundry bar) as well as donations from the Cloquet Area Hockey Women’s Auxiliary (CAHWA) and not out of CAHA’s general fund. The pull tabs generate $20,000 to $30,000 each year to help with the energy saving updates and replacing worn out mechanical items in the building. The Foundry closed last summer, leaving the association looking for other ways to replace the lost income.

The front doors were replaced because the frames were rusting apart, and other recent updates include new rubber mats for the players to walk on to get to the ice and a much needed new scoreboard.

The other scoreboard was so outdated that the parts to fix it were no longer available. An anonymous donor paid the majority of the $40,000 cost for the scoreboard, leaving CAHA paying only roughly 25-30 percent.

A few large projects are also on the horizon.

The roof will need to be replaced in the not-so-distant future.

The dehumidifier was adequate when the arena opened, as there was only ice in the building for nine months of the year. However, it was not built to withstand ice for 11 months of the year, especially with the heat and humidity of the summer months, so it needs to be replaced before any issues arise from the humidity.

The old R-22 freon ice plant still works, but if there is an issue after 2020 (when the United States will completely phase out the sale of ozone-depleting gas) it will need to be replaced instead of repaired due to changes in the law at a cost that could run into millions of dollars.

The majority of hockey arenas around the state are city owned and run, a few are owned and operated by a school, but the Cloquet arena is in a unique situation.

The city owns the bonds that paid for the building and CAHA makes payments to the city every year. The bonds should be paid off in 2026. While the city owns the building, CAHA runs it and is responsible for the repairs and cost of running the aging buildings, overseeing the lease to the junior hockey team, concession and pro shop sales as well as any events in the building.

Over the years, large-scale events have varied from the Potlatch appreciation dinner, the Home and Business Expo, a rock concert and wrestling as well as the annual Cloquet High School graduation ceremony. At least a few of the events, including the Home and Business Expo, have relocated to Black Bear Casino and Resort, which means more ice time, but not as much income.

“We are trying to get creative to generate more revenue,” Maslowski said matter of factly.

According to Maslowski, the current arrangement with the city is good and he believes they can work together into the future.

Maslowski will speak to the Cloquet City Council during the work session at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, prior to the formal council meeting at 7 p.m. While the meeting in the Council Chamber is open to the public to come and listen, it is not a public hearing.