« So Many Opinions, So Little Time

​Don’t dismiss Scheels Arena idea because of long-ago promise

by Mike McFeely

The series of missteps defining the history of Scheels Arena cannot be ignored. Investors disappearing, shady shenanigans between park board and school district officials, deals to avoid property taxes, ice sheets that never materialized, endless financial difficulties. And thats just the stuff we know about.

Boondoggle is a word often used by the public to describe the project. And perhaps it is that, although you have to admit developer Ace Brandts hockey venue has become an oft-used facility in a booming area of Fargo.

The question is: Should the dicey history of the place prevent it from progressing?

We are being asked that very question, because last week Scheels Arena general manager Jon Kram floated the idea of the Fargo Park Board providing some $2 million in public money to help fund two additional ice sheets that would be used for youth hockey practice, tournaments and other frozen-water activities. Krams pitch was a public-private partnership: If the Park Board throws in some cash, more private money (think Sanford and Scheels) would follow. The total cost of the addition would be somewhere around $8 million.

The recoil was immediate. Callers and e-mailers to my radio show were screaming h-e-double-hockey-sticks no before I could even finish the question: Should the Fargo Park Board think about doing this?

The reasons for the animosity are easy enough to decipher. Many see Scheels Arena (originally known as the Urban Plains Center) as the trainwreck of a boondoggle described earlier. There is also the not-so-small matter of boosters making the promise that theyd never, ever ask for public money if it could work a deal to have the arena shielded from property taxes. The Park District took ownership and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liability evaporated.

Less than a decade after making that promise, the arena manager is asking for taxpayer money. Hence, the anger and eye-rolls.

Fact is, its not as simple as saying no.

Thats because Fargo needs indoor ice sheets. Youth hockey in general is growing, girls hockey in specific is growing, tournaments are growing and there simply isnt enough ice to meet demand. The park district was planning on building more in the next five to 10 years. So if the city is going to build more sheets anyway, why not partner with Sanford and Scheels and get more bang for the public buck?

Plus, Scheels Arena could have two of the four sheets it originally promised when Brandt stuck his shovel into the ground and pronounced his project was for the kids. Which, of course, it wasnt. It was about making money off developing the land around the arena, which Ace owned. But thats water under the bridge.

It could be the proverbial killing-two-birds-with-one-stone deal. Build ice sheets that were going to be built anyway and connect them to Scheels Arena, which hasnt been able to fulfill its promise of more ice.

Granted, the Park District has to do its due diligence and make sure this would work. As stated earlier, there is no history of anything working as planned when it comes to Scheels Arena. But to dismiss an idea because of a promise made years ago, without taking into consideration the current circumstances, is regressive and spiteful.

Maybe the Park Board will look into it and decide its not a good idea. Maybe the Park Board wont be able to come up with $2 million. Maybe the price tag will go up and the board will decline to participate. All of those are possibilities. But well never know if Park Board members reject the proposal out-of-hand.

Commissioner Mary C. Johnson put it perfectly when she said: Im looking at this as a possible cost savings and it enhances a property we currently own. So I want to see what they come up with.

Reasonable, based on todays reality and not yesterdays broken promise.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on 790 KFGO-AM. His program can be heard 2-5 p.m. weekdays. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)