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Moratorium halts hockey plans

Photo by Rachelle Klemme The unprotected concrete slab of the Community Center was discussed on Tuesday's city council meeting.

The Wadena city council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to place a 180-day moratorium on building projects for designated areas affected by the tornado, effectively halting plans to rebuild the Community Center before the more expansive Wadena 2.0 planning and input from the Minnesota Design Team.

The building permit moratorium vote was one of many items on the agenda of September's regular city council meeting, which was called a "special meeting" in an e-mail circulated among community members involved in hockey.

All seats were filled in the council chambers, and several people stood at the back of the overflowing room. Tensions grew before the vote and afterward when the meeting was open to public.

The council members held their ground established at the Aug. 31 meeting, with Mayor Wayne Wolden, Don Niles, Jeanette Baymler and Toby Pierce voting in favor of the moratorium and Kay Browne voting against it.

Properties affected by the moratorium include Tapley Park, the southwest park, the school and the community center. In addition, the bus garage, Express Central and Heartland Tire were affected due to U.S. Highway 10 concerns. City Attorney Jeff Pederson said a Minnesota statute allowed the city to issue the ordinance for the health, safety and welfare of the city.

Representing the Hockey Association and the Community Center respectively, Pat Boline and John Paulson expressed concern about the vulnerable $500,000 concrete slab and the infrastructure underneath.

"The best protection is building," Boline said.

City council member Toby Pierce said there could be other maintenance options to save the rink surface without entirely rebuilding.

"Construction materials, I would think in this day and age, would be able to have something that you would be able to cover that to maintain that," he said. "But that's a huge slab, of course, to have to protect."

Paulson and Boline maintained that a building would be the surest way to protect the surface.

"If there's any movement on that slab, it's done," Paulson said. "It's not like a garage where we can let it crack."

Paulson said that even though they had $3 million in insurance payoffs, they could not use any of it to temporarily protect the slab because their legal counsel had advised them that the city might, in fact, have a claim to the funds.

"I want to remind the council that there's no other sport in Wadena ... that is recommended that they wait a year. It's been suggested we play outside. That's really not a doable option," Boline said.

Boline and Paulson confirmed that they were working with Hammers Construction, which had sent an incomplete application to the Planning and Zoning office. Boline said that the Hockey Association and Community Center's building proposal would be up to code. Paulson said they could work with Wadena 2.0 and that the east wall had an option to attach another building.

"We are building this with insurance payout, not public money, federal, state or local. I would think that's a good attribute. Not tax money. It's off the sweat, work of others," Boline said.

"These may be public dollars, and as such we have to make sure that they are spent appropriately, in a public manner," Wolden said. He said that in the previous trip to Washington, D.C., they had been encouraged to appeal the original decision of FEMA ineligibility.

Wolden asked Boline about plans for Wadena hockey if the arena was not built.

Boline responded that they had arrangements with Long Prairie and Park Rapids, and that Alexandria and Detroit Lakes had offered ice time. "[We] plan on building an outdoor rink facility based on when we can freeze a rink and use that as much as possible," Boline said.

Don Niles talked about the possibility of geothermal energy and savings for integrated planning of the community center.

"This is a rink that's seasonal, and we've been through this. Geothermal is not an application for this rink," Boline said. "Geothermal you drill into the ground, after 10 years you have to replace it."

Wolden said that a pool might be built sharing energy with the new community center, and the cost was to be determined.

Niles said, "I hope to rely on architects and professionals in this area who can give us some good answers and some good guidance in terms of what is the best for our facility."

Wolden said: "I have never had as many contacts about any issue as I had on this one. I am counting 107 between e-mails, personal contacts ... all supporting planning, doing it right, doing it once."

Pierce said that he had received many e-mails and phone calls, with all but one supporting the idea to wait on rebuilding the community center.

"They aren't aware of the slab, but they're still saying plan, plan, plan," he said.

Niles said, "The long term benefit far exceeds what at most will be some practice time in January and perhaps a couple of games in February."

"We are elected to represent the whole city," Baymler said.

"We're elected to try to do the best thing we can and use our own opinions and our own minds to help make a decision where maybe sometimes the general public doesn't understand everything," Browne said.

"We don't have $500,000 to throw away," Boline said. "We're talking about premiums that were paid off membership dues from hockey parents. Membership dues from community center. ... [The] city hasn't had any input in this for 26 years, now they want it."

"At this time the city holds a lease on the community center," Baymler said. "If you want to get out of the lease, then you have an issue with property taxes."

After the vote, the meeting was opened to members of the public.

Wolden conferred with Pederson privately before several Hockey Association members from southwest Wadena stepped up to the podium. Toward the end, several of the speakers were breaking down in tears.

"You need to preserve this sport. It's revenue. Ask Greiman's. Ask the hotels. Ask Pizza Ranch. We bring revenue to this community, when this community is losing revenue," said Michelle Motschenbacher, a hockey mom from the affected area of southwest Wadena. "I want you to look at my son and tell him why waiting was so important."

Paul Warren, a coach and hockey dad, said he works a full day and cannot travel an hour to get to practices.

Warren Meyer, another southwest Wadena hockey dad, said the council was being out of character for a small town.

"Your 2.0 crap is just a way to [say] Look, let's see how we can get federal funds," he said. "It sounds like a Twin Cities area community right now. Not rural community where we go help the neighbors."

He criticized an earlier council discussion on the grandstand, saying they were using insurance money from the grandstand toward other projects.

Meyer said that not all Hockey Association members could afford long commutes to practice. "It's us minimum wagers and a little bit above," he said. "We give up a lot so our kids can be in hockey."

Meyer expressed concern that the Wadena Hockey Association would lose members from surrounding towns and be squeezed out by Wadena 2.0.

Sarah O'Kane said she had seen e-mails saying the Hockey Association was selfish and Wolden's quote on broadcast news that it was an embarrassment to Wadena and a poorly laid plan.

"The one comment that I will not stand for is that the Wadena Hockey Association started this," she said. "You have taken away this from us. ... This is now a war, and please don't blame the Hockey Association for bringing it up."

Cindy Behl, who has been involved in hockey for 20 years with her husband, said she had heard comments that hockey people think they are better than others.

"We don't," she said, adding that hockey keeps kids out of trouble and teaches life lessons. She said she moved from St. Cloud where their hockey association does not have to worry about numbers, unlike Wadena. "If you wait two more years, you might not have enough kids to play," she said.

Behl said that the hockey association members are close-knit like a family.

By then, there were red eyes both in the council seats and in the audience.

Jill Boline, the registrar for the Wadena Hockey Association, said regulations would make it harder for kids to get back into Wadena hockey after a hiatus at another town. "There is a new rule with USA hockey that if we release our kids to Perham, Detroit Lakes, to wherever they go to play this year, we can do that. We can release them once. They cannot come back by choice," she said. "They may not make the choice to come back."

She said there was an informational meeting for hockey at 4 p.m. on Sept. 26 at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

Mary Barrett, a resident from the affected area of southwest Wadena, said she wasn't sure if she could keep her house, and the tornado was hard on her kids displaced from their normal school building.

"They don't want to go other places and play," she said, adding that a two- or three-year wait would ruin her son's chance to make college hockey.

"All we want to do is spend insurance money and get this building going," she said. "For you guys to have your minds made up before we even got here is unreal."

Bill Spar from Staples said that he had driven his son to Wadena to play hockey for four years. He said waiting for a stronger building would not do much good.

"I'm a carpenter, I work in construction," he said. "If you got another F4 tornado coming through and it hits it straight on, it's going to go down."

Tina Hendershot of southwest Wadena said that her parents and brother live in her basement, and life is no longer normal.

"Let the kids have something normal and play the sport that they love to play," she said.

Randy Taggart of southwest Wadena said that a city employee had told him the ordinance for the moratorium on building permits was passed two and a half hours before the actual vote, which Wolden denied.

Steve Johnson from southwest Wadena said that the people who had commented against the Hockey Association didn't have their money involved.

"Toby, you were one of the founders, next door to my neighbor, Dave Houle," he said. He said the money should go back to the hockey families, since hockey families had raised money at the community center's inception. "They might not be the same people, but it's the same principle."

Shane Motschenbacher, a high school student and the son of Michelle Motschenbacher, was the last speaker at the podium.

"Hockey is my life. It's all I do, all I think about. I play on the varsity team," he said. "I want to be a part of Wadena ... and have all my friends not quit hockey."

Several other audience members commented and asked the council to reconsider before Wolden spoke.

"I was a member of that association for 15 years. President twice. Went through every blood, sweat and tear that you did," he said, continuing through interruptions. "I will work my tail off for this community, and this association and that building, right alongside you. I love this sport ... Please, understand this is tough for me too. I need five minutes."

He excused himself, overwhelmed.

Dave Evans said, "If we have to drive our kids for one year to get our kids ice skating time, can't we do that when other parents are committing to it for four years or 10 years?"

When Wolden returned, he said that the school system might cover the expenses for commuting to hockey. "Parents, let's set the example for our kids," he said, talking about making do with what the town and the school have for now. "They're going to have graduation, I hear, on the football field. What a great day that's going to be. ... [The ice arena] is not going to be there, folks."

About an hour after the crowd was gone, the city council concluded the regular meeting.

"Wadena 2.0 is hopefully going forward in the best interests of the community," Niles said. "Tomorrow we'll be reviewing a community center RFP for the new community center."

Browne said she hoped the council would reconsider the moratorium decision after hearing the people.

"There's a lot of emotions, and I showed some of that tonight, and that's not me," Wolden said. He said a speaker from Siren, Wis., another tornado-affected town, had talked about the phases of disaster recovery and the point where tough decisions would have to be made.

"We're kind of through the honeymoon now," he said.