The Cloquet School Board and Cloquet City Council have yet to reach an agreement for use of the city’s hockey arenas this school year.

The Cloquet School Board approved a one-year contract to use the city’s hockey arenas this fall during its meeting Aug. 9. That one-year contract was then rejected unanimously by the Cloquet City Council during its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 18.

“My request at this time is that we do not approve the lease submitted to us and that we go back and try to continue discussions,” said Cloquet City Administrator Tim Peterson at the meeting Monday. “I find it a little bit disappointing that the school board didn’t agree to the three-year lease. Never once did they bring up dropping it down to a one-year lease. We didn’t talk about that at any meeting, so it was a bit of a surprise that they wanted us to approve that without discussing it with us.”

The vote for a one-year lease came at the Aug. 9 Cloquet School Board meeting. The vote was not unanimous, with Board Chair Ted Lammi voting against the contract, and other board members voicing displeasure with the contract negotiations process. The city offered the school district a three-year contract that runs from 2022-2024. The school district would pay $138,808 in 2022, with costs increasing by 3% each year after that.

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“It really wasn’t much of a negotiation,” board member Gary “Hawk” Huard said. “We went in and they wanted 3% and we said ‘No.’ We discussed a little bit of the findings and came back and we walked out of there giving them 3%. We did not have a whole lot of say.”

In explaining why he was voting against the contract, Lammi also laid blame on city officials.

“Negotiations are productive if they’re fair, but we’re being pressured here,” Lammi said. “The city has always pressured us and they have never negotiated ... Maybe I’m wrong, but I think we’re co-equal branches of government, but what we really are is we’re the only sober member of an otherwise drunk event, because everybody else just throws things at us and that’s what the city does. They know we’re going to take care of the kids.”

At the city council meeting, Peterson argued that the request for the one-year lease conflicts with the agreements the city has with two other entities in the arenas.

“We have three-year agreements with the other parties in that building, which would not allow us to make wholesale changes with the school district’s lease and not incorporate that into the other parties,” Peterson said.

While the school district will pay nearly $139,000 for 2022 to use Northwoods Credit Union Arena and Pine Valley Ice Arena, the Cloquet City Council approved a new contract for the Minnesota Wilderness, a Tier II junior hockey team playing in the North American Hockey League, at the council’s Aug. 3 meeting.

The new contract asks the Wilderness to pay $35,000 in 2021, with a $1,000 increase in 2022 and 2023.

Peterson also stated that the city was interested in “simply covering the operating budget for the arenas” through the lease agreements with the three parties. The arena requires about $240,000 each year for operations and maintenance. Any shortfall in revenue from the leases is made up by money from the city’s general fund. The city also covers surprise expenses such as any repairs.

In July, the Minnesota Legislature approved the city’s request to hold a referendum to enact a 0.5% sales tax to fund more than $6 million in repairs to the ice arenas and $2.1 million in upgrades at Pine Valley Park. Residents will have their say on the sales tax in November 2022.

Prior to the vote, Councilor Chris Swanson asked if the city and school district planned to resume discussions on the agreement.

“I mean, it’s going to have to, if they want to be playing hockey this season, correct?” Swanson said.

Peterson agreed and stated he had alerted Superintendent Michael Cary about his recommendation to the council.

“We agreed it would be mutually beneficial if we continue to sit down and discuss the needs both the school and the city have to continue this agreement,” Peterson said.

Diving into the details

While the Minnesota State High School League stipulates hockey teams do not start practice until Nov. 15 and tournaments end by March 4, the Wilderness regular season runs longer. The Wilderness’s first regular season game in 2021 at NCUA is Sept. 24, with practices starting earlier. The last regular season home game is scheduled for April 16. The final playoff home game for the Wilderness in 2021 happened May 25.

The city also awarded the Wilderness a $20,000 grant July 20 to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peterson told the council at the time that the team came to the city for assistance after a lost season in 2020. The team was still required to pay its lease, despite not playing any games, and was forced to relocate its annual camp.

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The city took over the ownership of Pine Valley and Northwoods Credit Union Arena from the Cloquet Area Hockey Association in January 2019. CAHA asked the city to become the owners because both buildings need costly repairs and improvements over the next few years — something the organization couldn’t afford.

CAHA signed an agreement with city officials in 2019 to pay the city $25,000 a year beginning in 2021 for use of the two rinks. School district officials agreed to pay $125,808 to lease the space in 2019, with costs increasing by 3% in 2020 and 4% in 2021. The Wilderness' contract called for $35,000 in payments for the 2019-2020 season and $30,000 for the 2020-2021 season.