Skating the issue
It’s the issue that never ends. It just goes on and on again.
And the longer it continues, the more it impacts the McDonald Center.
The controversy concerning what slice of the capital budget will fund the much-debated indoor tennis court facility failed to reach a consensus at the Dec. 2 Anchorage Assembly meeting.
Two measures were struck down by the margin of one vote each.
The first, introduced by Chugiak-Eagle River Assemblyman Bill Starr, would funnel $6.5 million to repair and upgrade Municipal ice rinks while tucking $4 million away in reserve to fund the tennis facility.
The second, proposed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, would grant $7.5 million for the tennis courts and $3 million for ice rink repairs.
A measure by Chugiak-Eagle River Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, giving $4.5 million for ice rink repairs and sending the remaining $6 million back to Juneau for redistribution, was put on hold.
Following the meeting, Demboski — cast as the swing vote — submitted a motion to reconsider Starr’s proposal.
“The reason I did this is because of discussions I had,” she said. “We knew the ice rinks need to be fixed.”
The Assembly will vote on whether to reopen the proposal at the regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17.
But what does all of this talk of tennis courts and budget delays mean to Eagle River?
The capital budget originally allocated $4.5 million for repairs to the Mac, and while there’s never been a threat of this money disappearing, there also has been no forward motion toward instigating repairs.
According to Rep. Bill Stoltze, this is a deliberate tactic by Mayor Sullivan’s office to force the Assembly to free up money for the tennis court facility, for which Sullivan heavily advocates.
“The broad language in the capital budget has given the mayor and Muni discretion to follow their own process and agenda,” Stoltze said.
Stoltze initially supported this language, since he believed it would offer the Assembly the flexibility to shuffle money around if projects tipped slightly over or under their allocated budget.
He now feels that the mayor has been deceptive.
He also wonders why the tennis court money wasn’t mentioned in the capital budget list.
“It surprised many of us,” he said.
He believes that Sullivan is holding the ice rink hostage by withholding repair money until he secures tennis courts funds.
“The mayor has communicated and others have relayed to me that there was not going to be anything done at McDonald until he gets his tennis courts,” Stoltze said.
“He’s playing hardball with our community,” he added. “And the McDonald Center is the unfair victim in this power play.”
Mayor Sullivan’s office didn’t respond to requests for comments from the Star.
The Mac ice rink is pushing the 30-year mark. According to manager Reid McDonald (the center is named after his father), the average lifespan of a rink is 20-25 years.
“We have every valve on there that’s 30-years-old so every time you touch a valve, there’s a little leak,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find parts.”
He doesn’t believe the rink can make it through another year without major repairs.
The rink is currently experiencing a Freon leak.
“It’s somewhere deep in the floor where we can’t find it,” he said.
The rink’s existing refrigeration system involves 12 miles of stainless steel encased in six inches of concrete.
“So if you’re looking for a leak, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” McDonald said.
The leak is in a confined space and presently not considered toxic.
McDonald estimates that 300-400 kids use the rink for hockey practice and skating time.
“If we didn’t have our rink, it would be a major blow to the hockey and speedskating community,” he said. “This isn’t Anchorage. We don’t have three or four rinks to use.”
The slated repairs will focus on upgraded technology and refrigeration systems.
Once completed, annual operating costs are estimated to drop slightly.
Since the ice sees heaviest use from September through March, repairs will need to begin by this coming April.
McDonald is becoming antsy.
“We had the allocated money and it wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “We can’t wait. We’d have a tough time trying to keep the ice through next year.”
Demboski believes a solution exists to the whole indoor tennis courts situation, and her suggestions will appear on the Dec. 17 Assembly agenda.
“I think that it is important that the voters and taxpayers that will be financially responsible for the ongoing costs associated with this project have the opportunity to weigh in,” she said.
She’s sponsored a measure that would pair State of Alaska grant money with a Parks and Recreation bond for the proposed multi-use tennis facility.
“If the voters want it, and are willing to pay for it, then we will build it,” she said.
Still, whatever the outcome, it’s been a long and frustrating wait for those over at the McDonald Center.
“We basically wasted 60 days and nothing has been moved forward on the repairs on our rink,” McDonald said. “We were just sitting on our hands, and an already tight schedule became that much tighter.”