WILLMAR — When the Cardinals and WarHawks take to the ice at the Willmar Civic Center this fall, they will be playing at an arena that will look almost brand new. From the paint on the walls to the ice under their skates, a lot of work has been done at the center over the past several months.

"We're trying to enhance the atmosphere out here," said Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation director. "The goal is to make this the best out-state rink."

Arguably the most important improvement, but also the one most people will never see, was the installation of a brand new ammonia-based refrigeration system, which will keep the ice frozen in both the Cardinal and Blue Line Arenas. It replaced the old R-22 unit, which had been showing its age.

"It was original, 30-plus years old," Baumgarn said.

The total project cost about $3 million, and included the construction over the winter months of a new mechanical building and garage with an indoor ice melt pit for the Zamboni.

"We love it. It helps out with storage," Baumgarn said.

The refrigeration system is run completely by computers and was installed by Commercial Refrigeration Systems.

"The craftsmanship they did in here was top notch," Baumgarn said. "They built everything entirely by hand."

Once the hockey season was over in March and the ice removed, the pipes for the new refrigeration system were installed. The Blue Line Arena was completed first, and allowed the city to offer summer ice for the first time in years. This got the new system up and running, and has given the Parks and Recreation department the opportunity to see how much it would cost to offer ice year round. The new system is much more efficient than the old.

"It should have significant energy savings," Baumgarn said.

The Blue Line Arena also received a new paint job and locker rooms. The north wall of the arena was clad in grey wood, matching the decor in the small lobby right off the rink.

"It gave it a totally different look," Baumgarn said. "It finishes off the room."

Construction is still ongoing in the Cardinal Arena, where the contractor, Reed Brothers, is finishing up the concrete floor. Before the ice can be put down other projects need to be finished. This includes painting the walls, hanging up new banners and wall decals, and installing the new 1,200-seat bleachers, which can be pushed in and out at the touch of a button, on both sides of the arena.

"It won't take us six guys to pull the bleachers out," Baumgarn said.

The entirety of the Cardinal Arena will also be handicapped accessible, with a new lift offering access to the mezzanine level. Some of the wood from the bleachers has been turned into a bar rail on the mezzanine, and Baumgarn said he has other ideas on how to reuse the old bleacher wood.

"We are going to use it," Baumgarn said.

All the work in the Cardinal Arena needs to be finished by the first week of October, and that includes putting down about an inch and a quarter of ice.

"We have to have the ice ready by Oct. 5. That is the home opener of the WarHawks," Baumgarn said.

It usually takes two weeks to get the rink boards and glass up and to flood the rink. Civic Center staff will have much less than that due to the construction projects. Baumgarn said they'll be busy getting everything ready for the start of the hockey season.

"There is a lot to running this facility," Baumgarn said.

The Civic Center has been getting a lot of attention the past few years, with updates to the roof, HVAC system, sound system and the projects being finished this year.

"The mayor and the city council have invested a lot of money into it," Baumgarn said. "We have to make sure it is done right."

Baumgarn is hoping the upgrades will bring even more events to the Civic Center, those that use a dry floor as well as those using ice.

"It gets used a lot, but it could be used more," Baumgarn said. "That is what this building is here for, to host events."

Those opportunities will only increase as work on the Invest in Willmar Local Option Sales Tax projects begin. Property around the Civic Center will see significant activity, as the new athletic fields and recreation and event center are to be built there. There is also the ongoing Glacial Ridge Curling Club project to build a dedicated curling facility adjacent to the Civic Center.

"The whole idea for being out here is a one-stop shop," for recreation, Baumgarn said.