East Grand Forks residents seemingly prefer relatively modest upgrades to the city’s ballfields and aging ice arenas.
A survey put together by city staff and consultants indicates that most residents would prefer better drainage systems and concession stands at the baseball and soccer fields at Stauss Park, and a new ice plant, parking lot and other amenities at the East Grand Forks Civic Center and VFW Memorial Arena. That data shows an “underlying message,” Reid Huttunen, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, told East Grand Forks City Council members on Tuesday, June 9.
“It seems like fixing our current facilities and improving upon our current facilities is the consensus answer that most people are going to want to see in how we go,” Huttunen said. “Taking a responsible approach to fixing what we have and making the best we can out of what we have across all these facilities.”
City leaders have been kicking around potential improvements to the arenas and ballfields -- and the sales tax that would pay for all or some of that work -- for nearly a year. A survey presented to Council members in April indicated that residents’ top priority was renovating or expanding the Civic Center, followed by fixing the ballfields, and keeping a sheet of ice in the VFW.
But it looks like those discussions will be entirely academic for at least another year. That’s because new sales taxes need to be approved by the Minnesota Legislature, which did not consider the 1% one East Grand Forks leaders proposed in February, which would have paid for about $15 million worth of work to the fields and arenas. Minnesota leaders are set to meet in a special session starting on Friday, June 12, but the focus then is expected to be police reform in the wake of a black man’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, plus the state’s economic recovery from a novel coronavirus.
The non-approval this year means sales taxes are set to be reduced by 1 cent for every dollar spent on most goods and services inside city limits because an existing sales tax, which voters approved in 2016 to pay for upgrades to a public pool, is on track to expire shortly. If or when the new tax is approved by lawmakers and, later, Eastside voters, it would return sales taxes to their current status quo.
Fifty-three percent of the most recent survey’s 443 respondents said that they’d support a new 1% sales tax increase to pay for improvements to the city’s parks and recreation facilities. The survey’s results indicate that the average respondent, so to speak, is a woman aged 35 to 44 who lives in the city and uses a park and rec facility multiple times each week.
While they wait for the go-ahead from legislators, East Grand Forks staff and the consultants plan to revise their study of the city’s options for the arenas, then present those revisions to council members in July.
An initial report recommended a $24 million plan that would add a second sheet of ice to the Civic Center and turn the VFW Arena into a multipurpose fieldhouse. City leaders have since scaled it back and reduced the adjoining sales tax from 2% to 1%.
The arenas are both generally in need of upkeep, including making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the catalyst for the renovation push is the city’s decades-old ice plants, which maintain the ice on their rinks. Both are in poor condition and use r22, a refrigerant that’s gotten increasingly rare and expensive since it was phased out at the beginning of this year. Huttunen said the city could spend about $100,000 to keep the VFW’s ice plant chugging along for another few years, but it wouldn’t answer the “r22 question.”
Council member Tim Riopelle urged the city to act quickly on the VFW’s plant.
“Because,” he said. “I think that thing’s ready to go at any time.”