Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Babbitt speaks out to save Castellano Arena

Stephanie Ukkola
Posted 7/20/17

BABBITT- The city of Babbitt is requesting proposals from area contractors by the end of the month on the work needed to keep the Ron Castellano Arena operational. The council has yet to make any …

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Babbitt speaks out to save Castellano Arena


BABBITT- The city of Babbitt is requesting proposals from area contractors by the end of the month on the work needed to keep the Ron Castellano Arena operational. The council has yet to make any actual commitment to fund the necessary repairs and upgrades.

The council took its action on Monday, following a special meeting on the arena on July 13. The popular recreational facility faces possible closure due to the high cost to replace the arena’s heating system and other major maintenance needs. About 75 people attended last week’s special meeting, including members of the ad hoc Cutting Edge Committee, who organized to save the arena. Emotions ran high as more than a dozen people spoke out on the subject.

By the end of the meeting it seemed that the city council and the arena advocates had come to an understanding on the need for quick action.

City officials asked Hecimovich Mechanical of Hibbing to come the next day to do an assessment and Rec Director Joe Scherer was asked to make calls to several other contractors and be prepared with quotes. Cutting Edge Committee members asked Mayor Andrea Zupancich and Scherer to join their committee, representing the city.

Duane Lossing, a member of the community, said something should have been done sooner, given that the city had known since last fall that the school would no longer be providing heat to the arena. Lossing pointed out that when the school district transferred ownership of the arena to the city in 1994, the deed indicated that the school district would pay for and maintain the heating system for a period not to exceed five years. “We’ve had 23 years to figure this out. This is not something that came down the pipe last fall,” he said. Council members admitted they were not aware of the deed.

Lossing asked the council if they had asked any other heating companies for bids, since their initial numbers were unfavorable. Council members were quick to shift the cause of the delay elsewhere. “We’ve been waiting for the rec department,” said Jim Lassi. Richard Huovinen said, “We’ve been waiting for numbers. We thought the rec director was working on it.”

Next, Lossing took out a copy of the city’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan and quoted where the city had committed to taking care of the arena. “The city should encourage no net loss of recreation facilities through a program of preservation, replacement, and expansion,” Lossing read. He continued: “The city will continue to support efforts to enhance and sustain the indoor ice arena.” The plan calls for the city to support fundraising efforts, and “incorporate the arena into the Capital Improvements Planning Process to review its needs and priorities of investment annually.” Others noted that the city only appropriated $4,000 dollars to the arena. Lossing said, “That’s weird it would go down so far since it’s normally $15,000. Why would it go down when we knew we needed more?”

Lynn Lenz chose to move to Babbitt for the opportunities it offered for her children twenty-one years ago. She has been the secretary of the Babbitt Figure Skating Club since 2010. Lenz came prepared with several figures that showed progress within the figure skating club. According to Lenz, membership has increased by 31 percent in the last five years. Ticket sales at the annual show have increased by 100 percent since 2014, going from 260 attendees in 2014 to 530 in 2017. The figure skating club also hosts Saturday night open skates that had 469 skaters last season. She also estimates that the arena serves 172 people per week in season and is used for 31 hours per week. These numbers do not include special events such as tournaments and jamborees that can serve as many as 250 skaters each and Skate with Santa that also serves more than 200 people.

Tom Duffy, who has coached hockey and figure skating since 2000, pointed out that the arena is valued at $3.5 million and it would cost $7-$10 million to build a new one. If they were to neglect the building by not heating it, this would be a $3.5 million loss to the city, he said, adding that the council has a “responsibility to be stewards for the future.”

Joe Zupancich questioned spending priorities. “The state spends more money getting people off drugs than you want to spend on an arena that will keep many more kids off drugs.”

Other speakers didn’t have hard questions or numbers for the board but instead spoke to how valuable the arena is to individuals, families, and athletes.

Tara Larson, an Ely resident and mother of three, said activities like skating are an important way to get young people active. Our children are “overcrowded with electronics,” she said, noting that the arena provides an alternative resource. “The youth need help, and the community is suffering.” Andy White, a former resident of Babbitt and a Virginia youth hockey coach, spoke about his 40 years of skating at the arena and how he now hosts a youth hockey jamboree at the arena that brings kids together from all over the state.

Sadie Theel, a 14-year-old figure skater, had planned to speak to the council in favor of the arena but came to tears as she approached the podium. Her mother, Jackie Bush, delivered her comments for her. “Sadie is in ninth grade. She works on her skills and tests in front of three judges to move up into the next level. Sadie competes at the DECC and skating has taught her to have a good attitude and confidence. Sadie also coaches younger skaters and finds it rewarding when her students say, “Coach Sadie, watch this!”

Lori Huseby will be playing hockey next year at St. Scholastica. She said she has always attended Saturday open skates. She recalled visiting the arena once as a child before she lived in Babbitt. “I was scared to skate,” she said, but then she saw someone she had met before and came out onto the ice. They’ve been best friends ever since. Huseby recalls playing constantly on the ice and gaining stamina. She even was the goalie for the local men’s league.

Ron Castellano, the arena’s namesake, also spoke. He had been a coach there for 32 years. He thanked everyone who spoke in favor of the arena and said he hopes they can enjoy the arena for many years to come. “Kids love the game that’s played on ice.”

Buzz Schneider, a member of the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal “Miracle on Ice” team, who had his start at the Ron Castellano Arena, wrote a letter saying, “We live in the state of hockey, where community ice rinks are a symbol of their respective towns’ pride, and it would be so sad to shut down a venue such as this one. In doing so, one could effectively be shutting the door on a future hockey or figure skating star.”

While community support may be strong, the arena faces two separate problems. First is the need to convert the facility’s heating system from steam to propane, a transition that would need to be done before the start of the ice season. Initial estimates for the work came in at around $130,000. Hecimovich Mechanical principal Bob Hecimovich said he would do his best to stay under $100,000. He said he has reserved time between Aug. 20 and Oct. 7 to complete the work if the city gives the go-ahead.

Joe Scherer said he has been calling around for bids and we will likely see a full line-up of quotes in the near future.

The second problem the arena faces is the need to replace their coolant, R-22, which is harmful to the ozone layer. The EPA is phasing out use of the product beginning in January 2020.

So the arena does have a few years to solve this problem. R-22 does have some direct replacements that the arena may be able to use to significantly cut costs in both remodel and in coolant price per pound. The R-22 issue will be put on the back burner until after the initial heating system is updated.

Contractor bids for the heat project are due by July 31. The city council will review the bids at a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 9 a.m.


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