FAIRMONT– Especially in the winter months, on any given day, there will be dozens of people, if not hundreds, skating through the ice or sitting in the bleachers at the Martin County Arena in Fairmont. The sheet of ice is used far beyond the needs of the high school hockey teams, but by a combination of people of all ages in the community.
While hockey has had a presence in the community for decades, the Fairmont Hockey Association formally began in 1984.
Kyle Gustafson, current president of the board of directors, shared that some of the founding members, including Fred Carlson and Ernie Nuss, went out and raised money for a chiller system for the ice. They got everything installed and then partnered with the Martin County Fair Board, which owns half the building.
The hockey association’s half was donated to the city, and the city leases the building to the association during the six or seven months that it’s used for ice.
“The association has all of the employees, has all of the equipment and maintains the building during those six or seven months,” Gustafson said.
As the association is a non-profit, there’s a board of directors, made up of about 15 people, that manages it. The arrangement with the association being the primary operator is rare as most arenas are city-run.
Still, the association has been self-sustaining for decades and the board of directors has remained fiscally responsible.
Ian Bents, who played hockey as a youth and is still involved today, noted how the facility has changed over the years. He said it used to be that when you walked through the doors, there was no warming room and it was immediately cold.
“When parents used to tie our skates, the floor was all dirt. There was just a skinny rubber mat to get to the ice, the bathrooms and concession stands,” Bents recalled.
He said to see how much the building has changed is incredible. However, it hasn’t been done without the hard work and dedication of those involved in the association over the years.
Every family in youth hockey has a certain amount of volunteer hours they have to work. They run the clocks, penalty boxes and concession stands.
“It’s the classic term, it takes a village,” Bents said.
The infamous hockey coupon books serve as a big fundraiser for the association, as do the sign sponsors hanging in the arena.
The association organizes a number of youth hockey programs including mini mites and mites, which is for the youngest children. There are also Squirts, PeeWee, Bantam, girls 12U and girls 10.
Gustafson said in that 2019 the Fairmont Hockey Association was recognized by USA Hockey and Minnesota Wild for the most growth in girl’s hockey.
One major point the association has been trying to get across is that it’s not all about hockey, but ice.
“We have a broad array of people who come and use the ice. There’s rock on ice and open skate over the weekends,” Bents said.
Rock on ice brings in people from not just Martin County, but far beyond. Gustafson said they have the people who come fill out a sheet with information, including the town that they came from. He said people have come from St. James, Madelia, Blue Earth and Estherville. So many come from out of town, in fact, that 70 percent of the attendees are not from Fairmont.
To accommodate the large number and wide variety of people who come to skate, the association has upwards of 200 skates it rents out.
“Those represent people who don’t play hockey,” Bents pointed out.
The ice is also used by Community Education and Recreation classes, 4-H groups, youth groups, for birthday parties and school classes. Gustafson said last year there were 35 to 40 area school classes that came out for rewards or class parties and that the association typically doesn’t charge them.
Even for those who do play youth hockey, or at the high school level, the association has equipment it rents out for a small fee and it will never turn away a youth who wants to play but can’t afford it.
For several years now, a new ice rink has been included in plans for a community center in Fairmont. More recently, several options have been on the table, one of which is an all-in facility, which would include both a YMCA-run facility, featuring basketball courts, fitness studio space and meeting rooms and a new sheet of ice, along with bleachers, team rooms, etc.
The proposed facility would be located along Johnson Street in Fairmont, near Fairmont High School and Mayo Clinic Health System.
Bents said the critical benefit of the community center project is two-fold. He said it’s to ensure that there’s ice, because of the failures in the current system, and to provide an opportunity to bring people to the core of Fairmont and spend money.
“For the hundred games that take place here throughout the winter, a low estimate is we bring a minimum of 2,500 people to Fairmont during those games. We bring people to Fairmont in Fairmont’s slowest months of the year,” Bents said.
He said the hockey season helps bridge the gap to get to the spring, summer and fall when the lakes, parks and trails bring people to town and are utilized.
Bents pointed out that with the arena’s current location, people come off of I-90 and when they’re done, they take the same way back and don’t have any exposure to Fairmont and thus miss the opportunity to spend money at local businesses.
Because of the set-up with the current facility, ice is usually put in by the third week of October and is shut down by the second week of March. A new facility could provide the capability of having ice for 12 months, though most year-round rinks typically have ice for about nine months.
Nearby, Worthington, Windom and Spirit Lake, Iowa don’t have year-round ice. Bents said if Fairmont had year-round ice, it would allow for people in those communities to come and rent the ice, which would generate more funds.
Currently, funds raised from the annual Southern Minnesota Pond Hockey Tournament are used for Fairmont’s teams to pay for ice time in Albert Lea. Other funds from the tournament, which is put on by local hockey enthusiasts, are put back into the association to help with equipment needs.
Recently, the association purchased a new scoreboard, which was used for the first time this past week. It also purchased a new electric Zamboni which will be here in time for next year’s season. The current Zamboni is 20 years old and runs off propane.
Because Fairmont doesn’t have year-round ice, many hockey families travel elsewhere for it. Gustafson said there’s spring and summer leagues and that there are 40 to 50 families from Fairmont that travel to Mankato or New Ulm for practice, as those communities do have year-round ice.
As for the state of the current facility, it badly needs a new compressor.
Gustafson said the compressor system was originally an air conditioning unit for a hotel in Minneapolis and was never designed to be a chiller system for an ice arena. However, it’s been used at the ice arena since the 80s, when money was raised to purchase and install it.
“We’ve done some fixes. This year we spent $60,000 just to get through the current season. It’s a bandaid on a bandaid,” Gustafson said.
Representatives of Tegra, the city’s owner’s representative on the proposed community center project, have looked at the current facility and determined that the compressor is in “dire” need of replacement. They estimated that a new compressor would be $1 million to $1.5 million and also recommended that HVAC upgrades and dehumidification units be included.
This coming Monday, the Fairmont City Council’s agenda includes discussion on whether to authorize moving forward with the design and purchase of a new ice compressor and mechanicals, estimated at $1.5 million. With that comes the understating that the system can be moved into a new facility.
Another option in front of the council is whether to move forward with a state bonding request and new market tax credit application to seek additional funding for a community center.
Bents said he believes the best case scenario is that everyone agrees on a community center facility that includes both a YMCA portion and ice.
“I think this project is at its highest and best use and peak benefit to the community if it all gets built and gets built at one time,” Bents said.
However, that facility is coming in at about $45 million. Bents said they understand that funding mechanisms need to be in place and that they’re aware of the concern about maintaining property taxes at the same level.
“This is an investment in our community, an investment in our youth and an investment in our business community,” Bents said.
While Bents said supporting the all-in facility is a “tall ask,” both he and Gustafson agreed that at the minimum, they need a new compressor to continue with the hockey programs and ice as a whole.
However, a new facility would better address all of the needs the association is facing.
Gustafson said they’ve had a good relationship with the fair board and noted that the fair board does a good job of utilizing the space when ice is not in as the space is used for wedding venues, trade shows and other events.
“We have a growing, vibrant association in the same building as someone else that’s using it for their own needs and there’s going to be capacity issues,” Bents said.
As the association has been self sustaining since its existence, Gustafson said if they have a new facility, they could move everything over into it and run it with zero costs to tax payers.
Both Gustafson and Bents expressed surprise and appreciation for the amount of support they’ve received from people in the community who maybe haven’t even stepped foot in the ice arena, but understand the need for the project.
“The sky is the limit for this project,” Bents said.