The Fergus Falls City Council committed $4 million to a new ice arena in a 7-1 vote Monday.
A resolution passed at Monday's regular city council meeting caps the city's contribution at $4 million, leaving arena supporters to fill the gap between the city's share and the final project cost. The resolution specifies that the city will fund the project through the Port Authority without holding a referendum.
That puts the amount of required fundraising at about $3 million. The total project cost is $8.6 million and includes $1.6 million from the Fergus Falls School District in the way of land, building space and shared equipment.
Randy Synstelien, 4th Ward, was the only council member to oppose the resolution.
Monday's arena discussions began at a work session and continued into the regular council meeting. There the council moved to place ice arena financing as a new business item on the agenda. Their vote was preceded by comments from dozens of residents who spoke for and against the arena project.
Many of the people who spoke in favor of a new arena - including council members - called for decisive, progressive action, lamenting what they saw as past failures to provide for young families.
"Fergus Falls needs to step up and do something," said Stephanie Pribbernow, adding she could list the families who have left the area for lack of youth activities.
"If you guys continue to be so conservative...you're going to lose the future of Fergus Falls," she said.
"This is not just about this project," said Jay Cichosz, 3rd Ward. "This is a paradigm shift in this city."
Other council members made similar comments.
"Continuing to put things off has been somewhat historic in this community," said Tim Jensen, 2nd Ward, who also made a call for action.
"I just believe, as far as an ice arena, if we don't do it now, we will never do it," said JoEllen Thacker, 4th Ward.
Some people invoked the condition of the current arena, which dates back more than three decades. Eric Shelstad, 1st Ward, said the city funds the upkeep and maintenance of tennis courts, softball fields and other sports sites, while the Fergus Falls Hockey Association (FFHA) and Fergus Falls Figure Skating Club fund the majority of arena operations.
"I don't think we're treating the programs equally," he said.
For a number of years, providing an arena has been part of the city's job, Cichosz said, "and I don't think we have another asset in as poor condition as this one is."
Residents opposed to the arena project were also on-hand at both the work session and the regular meeting. Several, like Cathy Colling, asked for a referendum.
"This is a special interest group," she said. "How many people does this really serve?"
"I'm not against progress in Fergus," she said, "but I don't think an arena is going to save Fergus."
"I think some of the things that are going on currently are out of order," said Roger Germann, differentiating between what he saw as needed spending and discretionary spending.
Germann said he would accept the results of a referendum because he would know he'd had his say.
"You're not letting me have my say," he said.
Randy Synstelien, 1st Ward, said he believed the reason council members did not want to hold a referendum was because they knew it would fail. He reiterated his position that no more than $1 million should go to the arena project without a vote.
"That ends up being based on my belief that it's important to, on significant projects of this size and cost...that we ask folks who have to pay for it if that's what they want," Synstelien said.
Only one person questioned the council's decision to vote on arena funding Monday night, as the topic had not been scheduled on the agenda.
"I think, no matter how you feel, there would be people on either side who would have spoken if they knew it was going to be on the agenda," said Gregg Palmer.
Council members voted 7-1 against a resolution from JoEllen Thacker that most believed did not do enough to specify the city's contribution. The second and final arena resolution was proposed by Jay Cichosz, who modified Thacker's version. In designating $4 million for the project, the resolution says the council will try to put as little of the cost as possible on taxpayers - possibly with the acquisition of bonding funds or with an attempt to implement a half-cent sales tax. Both are dependent on decisions at the state level.
For now, arena supporters said they are happy to have some financial affirmation of the project.
"It gives us a point to work from," said Eleanor Stadum, a member of the FFHA board.
Added board president Pam Muxfeldt, "We can take action because they took action."