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Proctor eyes new hockey arena, other sports facilities

The Proctor community will vote in a special referendum Feb. 7 to pay for a new hockey arena, seen here, and artificial turf for the football field. The arena building has poor insulation, rusted support beams and backboards that are bowing out, among other issues. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
The Proctor hockey arena is located in the South St. Louis Fairgrounds in Proctor. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

When it was built in 1972, the Proctor Arena’s indoor ice made it one of the premier rinks in the region.

But a pole barn made to last 30 years is creeping into its 45th, and users now rank it as among the region’s worst. The roof leaks and the concrete slab supporting the boards that ring the rink is heaving. Those boards are supported in several places with straps and other props to keep them from leaning, and metal beams supporting the ceiling are orange with rust and corrosion. Safety is a concern, said Kris Bryant, arena manager for the Proctor Amateur Hockey Association.

He cited an incident where the arm of a player who was checked into the boards got stuck between two of them up to his shoulder blade.

“We’ve done a really good job of putting the Band-Aids on over the years, but it’s getting more difficult,” Bryant said. “You never know when you’ve played your last game in there.”

The Proctor school district will ask voters Feb. 7 to approve $12 million via a bond referendum that would pay for a new arena, along with upgrades to Egerdahl Field and fields in Canosia, Midway, Solway and Grand Lake townships. Nearly $10 million of that is slated for the arena, with $1.3 million for artificial turf at Egerdahl and $250,000 split among the townships. The remaining funds pay the costs involved in issuing bonds.

“If we’re going to sponsor programming, we have the responsibility to provide a good, safe space for kids,” regardless of the activity, said School Board chairman Ted Peterson. “We have a responsibility, and we have fallen behind when it comes to that.”

Dan Stauber (R), head Proctor boys hockey coach / interim activities director, and John Engelking, Proctor superintendent.

Cost to taxpayers

Proposed is a 44,000-square-foot multipurpose arena on nearly 40 acres of district-owned land off Kirkus Street, in the southern part of town. The primary use would be for hockey, but a community room is planned, and there is discussion about adding a walking track. The rink would be ice nine months out of the year, and indoor turf for soccer and other activities would likely be available the remaining three months.

The floor plan shows locker rooms for youth along with storage for youth equipment, and locker rooms with showers and bathrooms for visiting and home high school teams. A pro shop, offices and a lounge for referees are included. The current arena has inadequate facilities, officials say.

At Egerdahl, the artificial turf would expand options for the site. It would allow for earlier play for spring sports and would also allow the football teams to use the field for practice as well as games. Currently, the field is saved for games to prevent damage. Proctor’s new lacrosse team also would be able to have home games.

Township improvements include a tennis court and new ball fields.

The cost to the owner of a $150,000 home would be about $47 per year over 20 years, and the owner of a $250,000 home would pay about $87 a year. The owner of a $250,000 business would pay about $157 a year.

This will be the second time in less than five years the district has gone to voters for money. In 2012, more than 60 percent of district voters approved the refinancing of an existing bond to extend another seven years debt meant to expire in 2023. The end result was $7.9 million in new money to pay for an addition and renovations to Bay View Elementary School.

Superintendent John Engelking said funding was sought elsewhere before the decision was made to ask the community for help with athletic improvements. Supporters asked lawmakers and solicited private entities, including Essentia Health, he said.

This closeup of several of the roof supports shows the rust problem in the hockey arena in Proctor.

Arena woes

Visiting teams to the Proctor Arena are put into separate locker rooms, neither with showers. They have the choice of waiting for the home team to be done showering, or go without. A recent game between the Rails and International Falls had the Falls kids on a three-hour bus ride home sans shower. Visiting teams and referees also share restrooms with the public.

That kind of situation can be problematic, considering that what happens on the ice isn’t always contained there, said Dan Stauber, the new coach for the boys varsity hockey team.

“In any sport, emotion runs high,” he said. “When you put referees, parents and players in those situations, you are asking for a perfect storm.”

The arena’s condition is a factor in another issue hockey supporters and school district employees have noticed: players transferring to other school districts, most notably Hermantown, to play the game.

 Families make choices, said Stauber, a Denfeld graduate who came to Proctor after 18 years coaching men’s hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

“Their choice to go to other programs, whether it’s East, Marshall or Hermantown, a lot of it has to do with, I believe, facilities and opportunities,” he said. “I think if we get an opportunity to build our facilities up, we will have a chance to retain those students and get new students.”

While reasons aren’t tracked, an average of 2 percent of Proctor’s students open-enrolled in the nearby Hermantown schools over the past seven years. More than 40 percent of all Proctor students open-enrolling elsewhere chose Hermantown during that time. Some of those decisions probably are made by families who live in the Pike Lake area, geographically closer to Hermantown schools.

The proposed project, called “Equity in Athletic Facilities,” focuses on perceived inequity between Proctor and area school districts.

Proctor’s athletic facilities aren’t the same quality as most neighboring districts, said Rory Johnson, activities director for the district.

“This is about kids,” he said. “This is not about ‘we’re going to have a state championship’ or anything like that. We want to provide our students with a facility they are proud of.”

Derek Hoffbauer, a member of the 1997 boys team — the only one from Proctor to appear in a state tournament — now coaches youth hockey. He’s organized a social media presence to garner support for the project.

It’s an investment in kids and the city, he said, pointing out a likely increase in tournaments held in Proctor, and with that, spending in restaurants, bars, hotels and other local businesses.

The once-booming railroad town adjacent to Duluth is known for its devotion to the sport of hockey. A group of families in the 1990s took out second mortgages on their homes to pay for a new ice plant for the arena, according to Stauber.

“That shows that there is a lot of strong history and pride to keep it going,” he said. “But we need to look to the whole community now.”

Dan Stauber (left) and Rory Johnson, activities director for Proctor, stand in the visiting team's room.

A different location?

Proctor Mayor-elect Phil Larson said he’s not opposed to a new arena, but would like to see it built elsewhere. He said the Minnesota Design Team, a group of architects who travel to rural communities to help them create building plans, came to Proctor a couple of years ago and recommended a multi-use facility near Egerdahl Field and the adjoining collection of athletic fields.

“That deserves a look,” he said, preferring a concentration of recreational space rather than the current and proposed scattered approach.

As for the increase to taxes, he said, “the returns need to justify the cost.”

While on its face it appears there would be an economic impact, he said, he hasn’t yet seen any studies.

The chosen location is close to Egerdahl Field, Engelking said, and has always been a top pick. The district owns the land, and other potential locations fell through, he said.

Dick Kari, longtime owner of the Powerhouse Bar in Proctor, is concerned the project will ultimately cost more than planned, or that it won’t be built to stand the test of time. He supports a new arena, he said, “but I want it done right.”

Peterson, the School Board chairman, said the schools portion of property taxes that Proctor district residents pay is less than what Hermantown and Duluth residents pay.

“Do we like raising taxes? No,” he said. “We recognize that can be risky, but we hope they understand the importance of it.”

Arena will remain

The Proctor Arena is owned by the city of Proctor and managed by the South St. Louis County Fair Board. The hockey association leases it from the fair board and the district subleases it from the hockey association, which would move its programs to a new arena. Frank Siiro, president of the fair board, said the arena would not be torn down.

“We’ll use it for events for the fair and whatever else we can line up,” he said.

Utilities for the arena cost between $6,000 and $8,000 during the winter months. With a lack of insulation, it’s a “pretty inefficient building,” said Bryant, the arena manager.

If the referendum fails, a plan for its continued use long-term would need to be devised.

“There is no plan B,” he said.

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