Roy Mercon, photo
HIGHGATE —After years of discussion, hundreds of volunteer hours, dozens of donations and more than a million dollars invested, the Highgate Arena has a new rink.
Hockey practices began this week and on Saturday the arena was to see its first game, an annual fundraiser for the Missisquoi Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) in which MAHA coaches face off against players from the Vermont State Police.
The new rink cost $1.3 million, which came from a $990,000 bond approved by Highgate voters last November, a $190,000 federal grant, and $110,000 in equipment donated by Sticks & Stuff.
The project also has received numerous donations of time and expertise from area residents and businesses. Chevalier Drilling Company, for example, drilled a new well for free, saving the town $9,200, according to Don Gilbert, a member of the construction committee.
In Sheldon and Franklin residents voted to donate municipal funds to the project.
Champlain Door bought two new exterior doors and installed them for free and repaired a third.
Volunteers also took down the old boards, painted beams, and installed tin along one wall, among other tasks.
Ty Choiniere, also a member of the construction committee, said there were “hours and hours of community support” in the project.
Work began in March, as soon as the hockey season ended, and will likely end up under budget, according to town officials.
Custom Ice Inc., a Canadian firm hired to install the new refrigeration system “went above and beyond,” said Choiniere.
Sticks & Stuff purchased boards when an arena in the Northeast Kingdom closed and donated them to Highgate. When it came time to fit them for installation here, Custom Ice offered to install new boards instead at no additional charge. Custom Ice took the used boards for possible use in the future.
“This is a whole brand-new set of real hockey boards,” said Gilbert.
Once the refrigeration system was installed and ready to go, volunteers worked to build up the ice. The refrigerant is encased in a slab of ice, which is sprayed with hot water that then freezes. When the ice was three-sixteenths of an inch thick, it was painted white, explained Gilbert. Then more ice was made on top of the painted surface.
“The new system is state of the art, computer controlled,” said Gilbert. “It’s something that’s going to last a long time. It’s a great investment for the community.”
There have been other investments in recent years, including a dehumidifier purchased with a Healthy People, Strong Communities grant from the Northwest Regional Planning Commission.
MAHA also has invested any revenues beyond what’s needed to run the arena into the building. The group replaced a furnace, installed new flooring in the lobby and locker rooms, and purchased artificial turf for use inside the arena in the spring and summer.
“This is going to be a year-round facility,” said Choiniere.
It is currently used for indoor soccer, baseball and softball practices in the spring, explained Gilbert, but MAHA is considering other uses such as rollerblading.
Whatever the summer activities may be, the arena will likely still see its greatest use in the winter months when hockey games and public skating on Sundays bring hundreds of people to the arena.
Gilbert called the arena “the hub of Highgate.”
There aren’t many places where people can socialize in the winter, he noted. At the arena, “You’ve got people who haven’t seen each other for years meeting up,” Gilbert said.
As another example, he added, “Come January all the Town Meeting items will be discussed here.”
To someone who had never visited the arena before, the new rink may not seem like much of an improvement, said Choiniere. “To somebody like me that’s been here all their life, it’s huge,” he added.
“We want to thank everybody, everybody, for the support we’ve received,” said Gilbert.
Despite the upgrades, one thing hasn’t changed. The french fries are still made from real potatoes sliced and fried on site. “We are known as the rink with the best fries in Vermont,” said Gilbert.
There will no doubt be plenty of fries served on Nov. 1, when an open house will be held at the arena from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be youth hockey games until 2:30 p.m. and free public skating from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Gilbert said it will be a chance for the public to see where the money went, although he added, “Most of it went where you can’t see it.”