$5.1 million bid given go ahead for ice arena
By Kevin Elliott
The Birmingham City Commission awarded a $5.1 million bid on Monday, January 11, to design a project to improve and upgrade the Birmingham Ice Arena.
The project – which includes relocating the arena’s main rink, replacing the facility’s refrigeration system, expanding locker rooms and other improvements – is part of an $11.25 million parks and recreation bond approved by voters in November 2020. Commissioners split their votes 4-3 last year over whether to put the bond language before voters. The bond was approved in November by more than 70 percent of voters.
On Monday, January 11, commissioners approved a $288,900 contract with Grand Rapids-based Andrus Architecture to provide architecture and engineering services. The firm has constructed 26 rinks in eight states, including Compuware Sports Arena, in Plymouth, and the New York Islanders practice arena, in Long Island, NY.
Commissioners approved the bid 6-1, with commissioner Stuart Sherman dissenting.
“Basically, we are asked to spend $5 million to have maybe a $50,000 net profit,” Sherman said. “We are asking the public to spend $5 million on something that non-residents will use and will be paid for by residents. We haven’t discussed if this is an appropriate use of taxpayer money.”
The comments came following a presentation by consultant Robert Stempien, with Plante Moran Cresa, in which Stempien said the arena tends to cost the city about $50,000 each year when looking at revenues and expenditures.
“They are never really moneymakers,” he said. “With ice arenas, you almost never break even. You’re probably into the black with the new equipment. They all strive to have a cost-neutral position.”
Planned improvements include replacing the existing in-floor cooling pipes; sub-soil heating systems; ice plant equipment; dehumidification systems; relocating the main ice arena; providing a female locker facility; enlarging the existing main ice arena locker rooms and providing a team locker room; replacing lighting with LED; and a new studio rink observation/meeting room.
Stempien said some of the major equipment at the arena is 45 years old, including the main rink’s AC units, of which only one was still functional. The arena, which is only operational part of the year, suffered significant malfunctions in 2017, 2019 and 2020, including a leak in the main rink’s in-floor cooling system.
Stempien said the improvements would provide efficiency savings of about $100,000 per year. The arena also could be open year-round.
Gary Piotrowicz, past president of the Birmingham Hockey Association and representative of the Birmingham Unified Hockey Boosters, said the team has been looking for a new locker room for four years. The clubs are open to Birmingham high school students.
“Currently, they have to change in the showers or bathrooms,” he said.
The boosters, he said, have already purchased the lockers for the team room and are donating them to the arena.
Commissioner Rackeline Hoff said she was concerned whether there was enough citizen input involved with the project. She said she hadn’t heard an outpouring of support for the project that the vote would suggest.
“People aren’t coming out because they are pleased with what we are doing,” commissioner Clinton Baller answered.
Heather Carmona, chair of the parks and recreation board, said there are 10 pages of public input from an earlier report about the ice arena. Carmona also credited commissioner Therese Longe, who previously served as chair of the parks and recreation board, for her work on the project.
“There was a lot of public input, but there has been a delay because there was nothing new until now,” she said.
Commissioner Mark Nickita questioned whether there had been any analysis or assessment on the long-term plans for the arena, and whether it was something the community was committed to funding.
“This is difficult because it’s not a park or a tennis court. It’s a very costly item,” he said. “When I think about $5.1 million and the amount of assets it can bring to the city – Shain Park cost $3 million and tens of thousands of people go through that in a course of a year… I would like to understand where we are going with this long term. Is this a full investment that we are going with into the future? What is the vision for this facility longterm and how much are we going to put into it?”
Mayor Pierre Boutros said he wanted the city to have a more competitive ice arena to help serve as a draw to the city, both with current residents and others.
“You’re at the worst stage that it will be with the arena today,” he said. “Either we don’t have one, or we have a beautiful one, and we have a bond that people voted for… I believe it’s overdue.”