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Shipping delays mean a winterlong wait for upgraded East Grand Forks ice equipment

Shipping backlogs have delayed upgrades to ice equipment at East Grand Forks' civic center until next spring.

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A plan presented by city staff, committee members, and consultants would transform the East Grand Forks Civic Center. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Shipping delays mean upgrades at the East Grand Forks Civic Center are set to wait until spring.

The component parts for a new barrel chiller at the center’s ice plant are caught in a broader backup of global supply chains. New condensers for the plant, which produces and maintains the ice on the center’s skating rink, are also expected to show up a few weeks later than the mid-October date city contractors first anticipated.

“Some of the components that need to be used to build the chiller by the manufacturer come from overseas, and those have not even hit U.S. land yet,” Reid Huttunen, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, said Friday, Oct. 22. “They’re sitting on a ship in a port somewhere.”

City Council members in July agreed to pay St. Cloud Refrigeration $370,000 to retrofit the Civic Center’s aging ice plant . That means upgrading the ice plant’s pumps, control system, chiller barrel and condensers, as well as rebuilding its compressors. Staff at the refrigeration firm did not return a Herald request for comment.

For the moment, only the control system has been upgraded. The new system takes more thorough readings, allows Huttunen and other parks workers to monitor the plant remotely, and can even ping their phones if there’s a problem.

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And that new controller is set to be the only ice plant upgrade this coming hockey season. The rest will wait until hockey wraps up in March 2022.

The ice plant is old and difficult to maintain. Replacing it became the catalyst for what’s now a multi-million dollar effort to revamp the Civic Center and other Eastside parks facilities. But Huttunen said delaying the ice plant upgrades isn’t likely to break or pose a tricky maintenance problem this season.

“It’s an older system, so there’s always potential for components to go out on it,” he said, “but with all of that said, we’re comfortable with the state it’s in. We’ve had regular maintenance done on it. It’s running well at this point, so we’re comfortable and confident it’s going to get through the season.”

City parks workers are set to start the ice plant this week and have the Civic Center ready for girls hockey practice on Nov. 1. The retrofit is set to be finished by April or June of 2022.

Delays, shortages

The delays that have apparently snared East Grand Forks’ new ice equipment are widespread. In essence, businesses are struggling to attract workers and that, coupled with the “just in time” manufacturing style many use, has meant large-scale and unpredictable shipping backlogs, according to David Flynn, a UND economics professor who directs research at the school’s Institute of Policy and Business Analytics.

That labor shortage, Flynn said, isn’t a simple byproduct of laziness or unemployment benefits, which were beefed up at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but have since returned to pre-pandemic levels, by and large. Rather than a reason to stop working entirely, unemployment insurance gave workers breathing room to take a better job rather than the first one they come across, he said.

But the shortage also isn’t as simple as businesses paying too little, either, Flynn said. Raising wages would help, of course, but it wouldn’t address people who aren’t seeking a job at all for health reasons, or because they worry about catching or spreading COVID, or they’ve opted to retire during the pandemic, he said.

“All kinds of pivots at that point...just occur because people make different decisions after a major event like that,” Flynn said. “It’s a real situation that’s probably here to stay.”

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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