VIRGINIA — Brain Silber came to town two years ago from Tennessee because his daughter wanted to live where it snows.
As parks and recreation director for the city of Virginia, he’s putting his affability to good use, conducting tours of a massive new $38 million Miners Event and Convention Center opening this fall near the heart of the city.
“How can you not be excited about a project like this?” Silber said, voice raised as he led a group through the noisy construction zone. “Professionally, you dream of being a part of something like this.”
At 144,000 square feet, and built to house two professional-sized hockey rinks along with a convention wing, the building is cavernous — twice the size of the existing Miners Memorial Building next door.
Built in the 1950s, that building will be demolished, making way for a potential hotel development. Silber described the old Miners as having good bones, but failing and with hard-to-reach organs.
More than a decade ago, talks began to refurbish the old Miners. But as state funding rejections came, the city thought bigger, hiring a lobbyist, and, in 2016, received $12 million in state bonding money to build new. The remaining funding will come from a 1% sales tax increase approved by voters and the state Legislature in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The tax sunsets in 20 years, or sooner if the building is paid off before then.
A taconite stone fireplace will serve as the hearth of the convention center. Surrounded by exposed steel beams and steel wall studs, Mayor Larry Cuffe noted how it all comes full circle for a city known for its mining.
“We mine it, we crush it, we process it, we ship it, it’s made into steel and it comes back to us here, and it’s product-based for us,” Cuffe said. “It’s an exciting time for our community.”
Designed to function as independent facilities or work together as one, the building features a community fitness center on the second floor, an events center and twin rinks — one a 2,000-seat showcase arena and the other a 500-seat supplemental rink that will feature ice year-round.
“Unfortunately, we lose a timeless, classic arena,” Silber said. “But we will have a state-of-the-art arena.”
City officials toured other facilities to get ideas of what worked and didn’t, and the result is that there will be no figure skaters, hockey players, coaches, officials or trainers cramming into the new Miners. Instead, space is ample, with a long hallway of assorted locker rooms running between the two rinks. Players will leave their lockers and skate across the ice to their benches in either arena.
Four high school-level locker rooms come with showers, individual player cubbies and chairs lining the walls. Youth lockers will feature benches and hooks and access to separate shower rooms which can be assigned to teams.
“We have enough locker rooms throughout this area, so we could accommodate four teams on the ice and four teams getting ready,” Silber said. “We won’t have as much of a locker-room shuffle.”
The old Miners featured twin rinks, too, but not like this, said Virginia Amateur Hockey Association President Dave Surla. With phone-charging stations, and data ports to feature televisions in locker rooms for studying game footage and delivering higher-tech coaching, Surla believes it’s the right time for the new facility.
“This is a huge opportunity to embrace a state-of-the-art facility,” Surla said. “Once you see it, you’re in awe of how big it is, and you start thinking of the opportunities. Teams that never come up to the Iron Range, they will want to play in our arena.”
Next winter will feature six youth hockey tournaments — double what the city has hosted in the recent past. Parks and recreation is also fielding interest from junior hockey teams that may want to relocate there, Silber said.
Ice will be made using an ammonia-based ice plant at a time other arenas are deciding how to adjust to new refrigeration standards.
Even without electricity right now, abundant light filters through the building, which features ample windows. Above the main staircase, four hanging solar lights use tubes to cast sunlight and use no electricity. The staircase leads to the spectator mezzanine and community health center. Because the building was designed to have its parts work in concert together, it will allow a person to come work out even if, say, a wedding and hockey game were already happening.
A “dry land” room in the health center will include artificial ice and hockey boards so that players can practice their shots year-round. A dancing and aerobics room will look twice its size with a full mirrored wall, and a community workout space will be filled with cardiovascular equipment — to go with the spongy walking and running track that circumvents the main arena.
Silber said the city is in talks with the Mesabi Family YMCA in Mountain Iron to operate fee-driven programming. Otherwise, the city will staff the facility, adding two full-time positions — building services manager and event coordinator — to work under Silber.
Similar arenas are run by civilian organizations or boards, but Virginia will continue its oversight of the new Miners as it did the outgoing one.
“The city is unique,” Cuffe said. “All revenue streams that come from this facility will be dedicated for administration and operation of the MECC.”
The city’s conservative estimates on its feasibility studies suggested ample revenue.
“The projection was for three weddings in one year,” Cuffe said. “We already have that, and more, wanting to come in.”
The city hired the Duluth-based Lundeen Group to study pricing, and build up the new facility’s calendar of events for when it opens after a weeklong grand opening in late September.
They’ve worked hard to transition users of the old Miners into the new facility, using a deescalating price structure for existing events.
“As part of this facility, we wanted to ensure that those histories and traditions are brought over and were just as important as new business,” said Tylar Lundeen, who will keep an office on site. “Bookings are going great right now. There’s a lot of excitement.”
In the wake of the pandemic, new conventions and trade shows will figure to have both in-person and virtual sessions. The MECC will be able to be configured to host and broadcast up to seven listening sessions at one time, Silber explained.
The Laurentian Chamber of Commerce has signed a two-year deal to host its annual dinner in the 500-seat ballroom. The Oct. 1 event will be the first official event to take place in the new building. The dinner has never been more than 350 people before, maxing out at the size of the spaces it's been held.
“We expect 500,” Chamber President Erik Holmstrom said, who also noted the area's $178 million investment in three new school facilities for Rock Range Public Schools. “I’m very excited. This is a sign of rebirth. For a long time we’ve heard, 'mining: boom, bust, stagnation,' but this is growth. This is incredible.”
Holmstrom and Silber both noted the commercial kitchen just off the ballroom. The decision was made not to offer in-house catering, and instead to allow for community use.
“That way, we are able to open up the catering possibilities to any caterer that holds the proper licenses in the state of Minnesota,” Silber said.
In addition to a hotel, Holmstrom expects small-business growth surrounding the facility. Part of the new Miners' cost will go toward carrying Sixth Street across the parking lots to connect with 12th Avenue — a configuration that will pull parking off of neighborhood streets and into dedicated parking lots. The road construction will also merge two water main lines, giving better water pressure to parts of the city.
“We’re going to be much better neighbors than we have been for the past 50 or 60 years when there’s a large event here,” Silber said.
The City Council more recently approved temporary flooring that will allow for the ice to be covered.
“We could have a high school game here on a Thursday, a national-act concert on Friday, and we’re right back to playing hockey again on the weekend,” Silber said.
One attraction that figures to draw attention: It’ll be the first arena in the state to offer ice bumper cars. The electric two-seat cars with inflatable bumpers “don’t provide the big jolt on ice when you get bumped,” Silber said, and will be available to be booked for birthday parties and team-building activities, along with general admission during down times on the ice.
The facility will have dedicated liquor and beverage vendors, and is conducting discussions on naming rights for individual rooms and the facility as a whole.
Outside, the exterior of the hockey side will be accented with a steel wall, while the events center will feature a wooden exterior — nods to the mining and logging that helped make the town.
A passive solar wall on the outside of the arenas will warm the air that’s taken into the heating and cooling system. In describing how it works, the southern Silber went to extremes.
“Instead of bringing in air that’s negative-30 degrees, we’ll be bringing in 20-degree air and we save that energy consumption of heating the air up,” he said, sounding like a man who had a handle on the future of parks and rec in Virginia.
Asked if the new facility could host a high school sectional tournament, which has been a mainstay at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Silber smiled.
"We're going to have the best facility on the Range," he said. "I would love for that to happen."