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Local hockey group pushes for refrigeration at Big Mine ice rink

Council open to adding perfect 18-degree ice to Big Mine Ice Arena

By Mark Reaman

The Crested Butte Town Council appeared Monday night to support an effort by local hockey aficionados to include refrigerated ice as part of the upcoming Big Mine Warming House expansion.

That expansion includes both hockey and Nordic organizations but everyone seems on board with adding the refrigerated ice to the current rink. That will mean pulling up the current concrete base at a cost of about $1.6 million, making the entire expansion project closer to $5 million.

Crested Butte parks and recreation director Janna Hansen gave some history of the hockey and Nordic programs that started in the mid-1980s and currently share an undersized warming house. “There is currently a demonstrated need for expansion as both programs have grown substantially,” Hansen said. “More than $1.5 million has been spent on Big Mine in the last five years. BOZAR has approved the plans for the Big Mine Park Warming House expansion. The effort has been a balanced, collaborative approach.”

The existing Warming House will be relocated within Big Mine Park and will serve as temporary facilities in the short term and Crested Butte Nordic storage in the long term. The new Warming House will be 9,500 square feet of all new construction.

Wendy Buckhanan of the West Elk Hockey Association explained to the council that as the program has grown, the needs have changed. She showed a video clip from a February practice where the goalie was moving water with his stick.

“Natural ice is a battle to maintain even up here,” Buckhanan said as she complimented the parks and rec crews for keeping natural ice in challenging conditions. “Refrigeration keeps the ice at a perfect 18 degrees and that is when parks supervisor Pete Curvin’s battle can stop. Having this makes the ice safer, adds more ice time and gives local players the opportunity to have ‘home’ ice at games instead of going to Gunnison. The refrigeration and Warming House expansion need to happen simultaneously.”

Citing the fact that having more consistent ice would allow for more hockey tournaments, clinics, games and an expanded season, Buckhanan said it would also save the town money in overtime hours used when employees make the ice at the start of each season. More than 209 overtime hours were accumulated in the town effort last year.

Hansen said the Warming House expansion is estimated to come in at about $330 per square foot and cost $3.3 million. Additional items would add $150,000 and the refrigeration would cost $1.6 million for a total of about $5 million. The $1.6 million includes tearing up the existing concrete, installing the refrigeration and heating systems and adding the needed compressors.

Hansen is planning to apply for a $1 million Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grant, and is requesting $500,000 from the town’s capital budget, as well as anticipating a lot of in-kind contributions from local workers and reaching out to other granting agencies. Still, she expected that $3 million would have to be fundraised for the project, which she hoped could be done in time to start the expansion in 2020.

With refrigeration, total operating costs are expected to come in at about $22,500 annually. But through a series of moves including renting skates, offering an annual skate pass, increasing the hourly rate for the ice rink and adding ice-time opportunities, Hansen was confident those costs, especially utilities, would be covered every year.

The council was being asked to consider the funding allocations and look at adjusting the town’s five-year capital plan.

“I have no problem moving money around to get refrigeration,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “It would be nice if you could find an angel donor like the Center for the Arts recently did with a multi-million-dollar donation.”

Hansen assured councilman Kent Cowherd the expansion was meant to last into the future and not just be a Band-Aid.

Councilman Chris Haver said he appreciated the energy savings associated with refrigerating an outdoor rink, which he was told was cheaper and less energy-intensive than keeping ice cooled in an indoor facility. “We’ll definitely have to look at what the town gives up to provide the capital funds for this,” he said. “We need to examine this.”

Local hockey coach Billy Watson reminded the council that attracting more hockey events to Crested Butte benefited the town not just through immediate sales tax revenue increases, but all business in town such as restaurants would see a boost along with potential employment opportunities.

Crested Butte Nordic executive director Christie Hicks said her group understood how important refrigeration of the rink was to the hockey community. “We haven’t seen all the numbers until tonight but we are supportive of adding this to the scope of the project even though it is not part of our mission,” she said. “It is a great opportunity for this to be a great public amenity.”

The council has a general thumbs-up to the idea and will look more closely at its capital budget to get an idea of how to shift funds around as part of the deal.

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