‘We’re down to necessities.’
HIGHGATE — Highgate voters will once again be asked to consider the future of the Highgate Arena on Election Day in November. The selectboard plans to ask the town to approve a $990,000 bond to repair the rink and refrigeration system that maintains the ice.
The bond issue, which requires a third vote on the arena’s future here, would allow the town to take advantage of a $200,000 federal grant, which must be used by Sept. 2015.
“We’re down to necessities,” said Kim Gates, who chairs the Highgate Arena Renovation Team (HART). “The priority is just to fix the ice.”
“It’s a modest renovation,” she added.
If voters approve the proposal, work would begin in March 2015 and be completed that fall.
The selectboard met with HART and members of the Missisquoi Area Hockey Association (MAHA) Monday night to discuss the arena’s future.
MAHA has leased the arena building from the town for the past four years. Under MAHA’s entirely volunteer management the arena has earned a profit by renting ice time in the winter and space for other activities in the summer. That profit has been reinvested in the building, including the purchase of artificial turf for the summer months, repairs to the locker rooms, and a new furnace.
“Does the selectboard see a different arrangement after the facility is renovated?” asked Paulette Tatro, a member of HART and MAHA.
The board generally seemed to favor continuing to lease the building to MAHA. However, Tatro urged the creation of a capital reserve fund that would be under the control of the town.
Selectboard member Chris Yates suggested the town determine the future maintenance needs for the arena and base the lease payment on those needs. The lease payment could then be placed into a reserve fund.
Josh LaRocque of MAHA proposed hiring a paid manager either full or part time for the facility. The manager’s salary would be tied to how much funding they bring into the arena.
It will need to be clear to taxpayers that the manager’s salary is coming from the proceeds generated by the arena itself, suggested Andy King, a selectboard member.
The manager, suggested Tatro, will “write their own paycheck.”
Town administrator Heidi Britch-Valenta noted that it is not uncommon for non-profit organizations to run with a mix of volunteers and paid managers, mentioning her own work with water quality organizations. In those groups, the manager is paid out of the funds they raise and coordinates the efforts of volunteers.
MAHA itself pays fees to use the ice at the arena. The arena is overseen by a facilities board, which bills the executive board of MAHA for ice time.
MAHA and MVU pay $150 per hour. Hockey teams from Milton and St. Albans pay $160.
The arena also donates ice time to the local elementary schools during the school day so that young children may be taught to skate.
Aside from the date of the vote, the selectboard did not make any final decisions regarding the management or financial arrangements at the arena after the renovations. However, the plan is to finalize those details prior to the bond vote.
HART and the selectboard are planning an extensive outreach campaign, and intend to provide the public with the last four years of financial history for the arena, the proposed management structure and proposals for future maintenance, as well as information about the renovations and bond proposal themselves.
Highgate previously approached Franklin and Swanton, the other towns in the Missisquoi Valley Union High School district about the creation of a tri-town arena, owned and operated by the three towns. The towns together would have paid for $4.5 million in improvements to the arena.
Swanton voters rejected the proposal twice.
Highgate then decided to go it alone. On Town Meeting Day, the selectboard placed a request for a $1.3 million bond before voters. The plan was to combine the bond with private fundraising efforts. Voters rejected the proposal.