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Sound the goal horn: bucks for pucks bill gets division approval

Todd Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, testifies before the House State Government Finance Division Feb. 26 in support of a bill to provide Mighty Ducks grant funding. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Minnesota is known as the “State of Hockey.”

However, as expenses continue to rise, local communities and associations are needing to raise costs, such as ice time or registration fees. For some associations, fundraising has become almost as important as teaching youngsters the skills needed to play the official state sport.

For the last 25 years, extra state support has come and gone through the Mighty Ducks grant program.

Sponsored by Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul), HF541 seeks $5 million in general-obligation bond proceeds to fund more grants. Statutes relating to the program — the "James Metzen Mighty Ducks Ice Center Development Act" — are named for the former state senator and program proponent, who passed away in July 2016.

The bill would also increase the maximum grant that may be provided for elimination of R-22 refrigerant in public ice facilities. Current law caps a grant at $50,000 for an indirect cooling system and $400,000 for a direct cooling system. Those amounts would be increased to $250,000 and $500,000, respectively.

Approved Tuesday by the House State Government Finance Division, HF541 heads to the House Ways and Means Committee with a recommended re-referral to the House Capital Investment Division. Sponsored by Sen. Jerry Newton (DFL-Coon Rapids), SF332, the companion, awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

A similar bill, HF956, sponsored by Rep. Erin Koegel (DFL-Spring Lake Park), was held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion. It seeks $4 million from the General Fund for grants in the 2020-21 biennium. Newton also sponsors its companion, SF894, which awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

In 2014, the U.S. government decided that R-22, or Freon, can no longer be imported beginning in 2020.

“There will be entities who will stockpile it and use it. Other folks in many municipal rinks are being forward thinking and trying to figure out alternatives,” said Todd Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission. Depending on requests, he believes $2 million could help 5-10 arenas be upgraded. “We know the need is greater than that.”

“It’s a real cost that the communities bear, and this would help buy it down,” Lillie said. “The communities are definitely going to have to step up and match.”

The program began in 1995, and through 2004 awarded more than $18 million to help communities build or update 61 sheets of ice. It was another decade until more funds were made available: $1.5 million in 2014, $2 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016. It was shutout in the 2017-18 biennium.

Champlin City Administrator Bret Heitkamp said part of their arena’s annual revenues have been set aside, but the bill would “address a significant portion” of needed upgrades.

“We feel ourselves, the community and our partners are doing what we can,” he said.

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