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Fergus Falls ice arena plan divides community

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The Fergus Falls (Minn.) City Council has committed $4 million to a new ice arena - a project that generated impassioned support, vocal opposition and, more recently, an effort to recall a council member.

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Supporters say the new arena will ensure the survival of the city's vibrant youth hockey program and send a positive message to current and potential residents. They readily say they bypassed a public vote because they expected it would fail. But they pledge to fall back on a property levy only as a last resort.

Opponents say the city commitment to the project is hefty enough that taxpayers should have made the ultimate call. And they question the wisdom of the investment in lean times.

"If you're going to build something while we are in a recession, it'd better be something that will make the city money or be for public safety," said resident Peter Haugen, who added that he supports a more modest city commitment to a new arena. "There's a difference between a need and a want."

Earlier this month, the council approved a resolution supporting the arena. During a special session last week, council members decided on the sum the city would contribute in a 7-1 vote.

Supporters would need to raise roughly $3 million in private funding. The School District is pitching in with $1.6 million worth of shared equipment and land next to the high school gymnasium.

Councilwoman JoEllen Thacker said the existing ice arena, which the city doesn't own, needs an estimated $4.8 million in repairs to stay open - an amount that makes building new more cost-efficient.

"The hockey program has been here for 40 years, and I wasn't ready to see it die," she said.

She and fellow council members said support for the arena will cast the city as progressive and welcoming to young families.

"This is one of the amenities we need to keep young people here and attract new families," Thacker said. "We needed to take a long-term view of what's best for the city."

To opponents, $4 million is too much money to skip a public vote. "It makes sense to build a new arena," Haugen said. "My problem is they didn't give taxpayers, who'll be footing the bill, a choice."

Former candidate for mayor John Strauch, who missed last week's meeting, is also upset the council voted on city funding even after the item was removed from the meeting agenda.

Strauch is starting a petition to recall Thacker, an issue that would be put to a vote if at least 20 percent of registered voters in his ward sign the petition.

Councilman Eric Shelstad and Thacker both say the council bypassed a referendum because of concerns it would not pass. Shelstad said he worried opponents of the project would oversimplify it: "If this went to a referendum, it would be voted down because people would only hear two words: 'hockey' and 'money.' "

He took issue with claims the city sneaked by the funding vote, which came on the heels of several meetings and opportunities for public input.

If private funding comes through, the city will first try to secure state funding or consider a half-cent sales tax, which would require a referendum, said Shelstad: "The city might not be on the hook for anything."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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