The North Branch Area Hockey Association held a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 30, to announce it is officially building its own ice arena.
“This thing started back in 2008, so it’s been a long, long process,” said Tom Garin, former NBAHA president and current gambling manager.
Located at 30440 Stacy Ponds Drive in Stacy, the future North Branch Ice Arena stands with construction already in Phase 1.
“Back in 2008, our people (NBAHA) before us, they worked on trying to get an ice arena in North Branch — and it didn’t go well,” said Autumn Hanes, NBAHA secretary. “The city of Stacy was willing to work with NBAHA. They ended up buying land outright. We own land.”
As of right now, the NBAHA has no debt for the land or the building that is already being worked on as part of the ice arena.
Only three or four hockey associations own their ice arenas in Minnesota; one of those is the Isanti Arena, which is run by the Cambridge Isanti Arena Corporation. While the NBAHA is going to be an addition to that list, that process certainly hasn’t come without struggles along the way.
“We are part of a very small group trying to do this on our own,” said Ryan Swenson, NBAHA vice president.
The association may have had the building to start its arena, but not the proper funds to move forward, up until recently.
“We’ve been using the money from registration and fundraising to do small projects on the arena since the initial shell was constructed,” Swenson said. “A few years ago, it was realized that with the proper approval from the state, we could use money from our charitable gambling for these construction projects, and that has sped up the process.”
Since then, the association has been slowly constructing on the front half of the building, putting roughly $300,000 into it, which has already been paid for.
“We have about 50% of the costs already accounted for, and the rest will be raised through fundraising and charitable gambling prior to the completion (of Phase 1),” Swenson said.
Swenson mentioned that NBAHA has poured the flooring in the lower level, as well as completed plumbing and electric.
The NBAHA started working with APEX Construction and partnered with Tom Betti from the 292 Design Group to assist with the rest of the arena design and construction.
“We literally finished the drawings and they are in for permit,” Betti said.
Betti confirmed that Phase 1 is basically set in stone. The already constructed front half of the building, where the main entrance is, will consist of dryland training, concessions, bathrooms, office space, custodial space, and an electrical room.
“This is an area that hockey associations can’t afford, and this is a big value item,” Betti said.
A dryland training facility is unique to the arena. It will allow players to train off the ice to perform stick-handling drills, use shooting lanes, lift weights and more.
The dryland facility will help kick start the rest of the construction of the arena. The NBAHA plans to finance the rest of the building, but it will not have the chance to move forward with that until the first half is completed and being used. The idea is to rent out this space to help pay for the second phase of construction.
Betti said that the rest of the building could occur in multiple phases depending on the future. Materials, financing, and plan changes can all affect the timeframe and outline of the final construction.
The plan is to have an indoor and possibly an outdoor ice rink. Locker room sizes will be bigger than most arenas — roughly 360 square feet — and varsity locker rooms will be included in addition to the regular rooms.
After patiently waiting for the last 14 years, parents are asking: When will this be ready?
“Will my bantam get to play in this some day, or just my mite?” parent Andrew Rodriguez asked. The NBAHA bantam age group is 13-to-15-year-olds, and the mites are 4-to-8-year-olds.
“Realistically my goal that’s in my head, (your older child) will be playing in this as a senior,” Swenson responded.
Next winter is when the NBAHA plans to have its players perform in the dryland training area. As for the rest of the building, it’s hard to get a straight answer.
“If you said we have the money and we’re ready to go, I would say what’s realistic is 18 months,” Betti said.
As inflation has spiked recently and materials are on back order, it’s hard to tell what will be readily available for the association as soon as financing is ready to go. Moving forward, the association plans to continue fundraising, enrolling more kids, and taking donations to make it happen.
Another question asked was, once this arena is ready, will fees for the kids in the association increase?
“I can’t speak to what future board members will do, but the current board would like to keep offering hockey to our members as cheap as possible,” Swenson said. “If you were to research some of the surrounding associations and compare prices, we are the cheapest, something we are proud of and want to continue. We have one fee at the time of registration, other associations have a tryout fee, jersey fees and ice bills throughout the season.”
Another question was raised at the meeting in regards to the future ice arena being available all year.
“Does this rink have the ability to stay frozen year-round, or insulated to that point?” Rodriguez asked. He wanted to see if there will be an opportunity to use the ice for practice over the summer, and noted East Bethel doesn’t have that option.
“That’s the plan on this,” Betti responded. “This is designed with a wall system that will allow that to happen.”
Although the NBAHA will be getting this project done on its own, it does plan to have others join on the home ice.
“Though we would love to ‘stand on our own,’ we will need to sell ice to other associations. Hopefully once the arena is complete, there will be a surge in families that have been avoiding playing hockey due to time constraints and having to travel to neighboring communities to skate,” Swenson said. “As far as teams outside of K-12, if we were approached by a junior hockey team, we would definitely listen.”
Swenson also mentioned that the NBAHA is open to having the North Branch High School hockey teams use their rink. Currently the boys play on a co-op team with Saint Francis called the Northern Edge, and the girls play on a co-op team with Cambridge-Isanti and Saint Francis called the Northern Tier Stars.
“We’ve had discussions with the high school hockey coaches and the NBHS athletic director and it has always been the plan to have the NBHS team skate at our rink,” Swenson said. “There have been some changes in both of those departments, so those conversations are always ongoing, but we would love to have the NBHS hockey team skate at our rink, whether it is on their own or as a co-op.”
Click here to find out more about the North Branch Area Hockey Association and its goals.