Thursday, April 24, 2014

Little Orphan Arena

This is a great time of year to be a hockey fan.  The NHL Playoffs are on TV every night, showcasing the passion, intensity and speed to an increasing audience.  But there is now a cloud that has settled over the sport here in the Fox Valley--as the Tri-County Ice Arena appears to be on its way to closure.  This week, the Winnebago County Board--which serves as the de facto owner of the facility--stripped County Executive Mark Harris of the power to negotiate the management contract for the arena.  Any agreement will now have to win approval from 36 members of the County Board--the majority of whom have no interest in operating an ice arena.

The fate of Tri-County may have been sealed from the beginning.  The arena was built by a private entity and then "gifted" to Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties for continued operation.  As we point out endlessly in this forum, people (including County Board members) place no real value on something they didn't have to pay for.  Calumet County thought so little of the "gift" that they contributed ZERO dollars to any improvement or maintenance projects.  And because the arena sits in the town of Menasha, Outagamie County officials quickly lost interest and refused to put any money into it either--selling their "share" for a whopping $1 a couple of years ago.

In the vacuum of disinterest from the counties, the Tri-County Recreation Association--made up largely of the user groups--stepped up and kept the place running.  Holding fundraisers to purchase ice-surfacing equipment and furniture.  But they have never been able to get the cash needed for major projects--like fixing the parking lot that looks like a military bombing range--or patching a leaky roof.  Fed up with the lack of help--and the subsequent power play by the County Board, the Recreation Association is throwing in the towel--not submitting a proposal to continue operations this year.  The three companies that did submit offers didn't meet the requirements set out by the County--namely, you run the place and fix all of the problems out of your own pocket.  And really, who in their right mind would stick money into a facility that you don't own?

Despite reassurances (some with smirks) from Supervisors this week that the arena won't close, it almost appears to be a foregone conclusion--since the timeline to find a solution has been pinched so tight by the Board's action this week.  (Ironically, the vote to take that power away from County Executive Harris came the same day he announced he was running for Congress).  Once the arena does close, it will leave three high school teams and several youth hockey and figure skating programs with nowhere to practice and compete.  Knowing hockey parents, they'll still schlep their kids to Green Bay, or Oshkosh or even Waupaca to get ice time--but some families will decide that effort isn't worth it--and their kids will no longer compete.

We talk about how youth sports teaches kids so many life lessons--like sportsmanship, teamwork and the feeling of accomplishment through hard work.  But for kids who have played at Tri-County, they'll get a bonus lesson: If you leave government in control of something long enough--it will end up in complete and total disaster.

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