Kenai Central High School’s varsity hockey team will play this season’s first home game closer to home than usual. In the past, the team has played games on the Olympic-sized rink of the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, but on Jan. 11 they will skate on to the ice of the ConocoPhillips Kenai Multipurpose Facility — which until now the team has used for practices but never games.
“To a certain degree we have a bit of an identity crisis,” said Kenai Central hockey coach Michael Tilly. “We have our own school and we have our own rink, but we never play our home games there. Right now we kind of have a resurgence in interest in actually having our home games at our home rink, and so we collectively came together and said ‘this is what we’re going to do this year.’”
The ConocoPhillips Kenai Multipurpose Facility — colloquially known as the Kenai ice rink — was built in 1999. The structure rose from an unusual combination of municipal funding, private investment and volunteerism.
At a July 1999 meeting, Kenai resident Nate Kiel — now general manager of the Kenai River Brown Bears Hockey Team — told the Kenai City Council that hundreds of Kenai residents had signed petitions requesting a municipal ice rink and that two dozen groups had stated their support for the construction of one, according to council minutes. Kiel and Kenai-based attorney Rick Baldwin were early proponents of the project.
“Nate Kiel and I were interested in high school hockey,” Baldwin said. “I had a son that was playing hockey. We wanted just a covered rink. So we approached the city about putting a covered, cold-weather rink in. They seemed to be interested.”
In February 1999, architect Peter Klauder had a design to present: the project would start with a three-sided shell surrounding the rink — designated “phase one” — that could later be expanded with the addition of upper-level running and walking tracks and a rock-climbing wall in phase two. He estimated phase one would cost about $1.2 million.
According to a memo from then-City Manager Rick Ross, the council had originally budgeted $750,000 for constructing the ice rink — including $60,000 from the General Fund for building design, and $675,000, raised by selling city-owned land around the golf course, for construction.
In April 1999, three construction companies bid for the project. The lowest cost offered for phase one — just the building shell and rink — was $1.03 million from G&S construction. Ross wrote that with electricity and inspection cost, the total project could be between $1.3 and $1.4 million.
“After quite a bit of conversation, it became apparent that they didn’t have enough money to fund the construction,” Baldwin said. “My son had been at the meeting with me, and as we walked out I shot my mouth off in front of my son, and I said ‘we could raise that kind of money in this town.’ He looked at me and said, ‘We ought to do it.’”
With a group of ten other investors, Kiel and Baldwin took a $350,000 loan to fill the gap between the city’s $750,000 and the contractor’s price, with some left over to buy a zamboni. The group called itself Phase One, LLC. The building was raised on a 10-acre lot next to Kenai Central High School that the Kenai Peninsula Borough had recently acquired from the Alaska Mental Health Trust and subsequently transferred to the city. The then-in-development Kenai Challenger Learning Center was also planned for the site.
Winter was coming on as construction began. Baldwin was among the volunteers who helped with construction. He said the temperature made digging holes for the building’s posts difficult.
“The ground was frozen solid, so (Homer Electric Association) came out and used their heavy-duty bits,” said Baldwin, who served and continues to serve as HEA’s attorney. “They loaned their equipment, and some of the HEA employees themselves donated their own time to come out and use HEA equipment to dig the holes to put in support posts for the rink.”
After construction, Baldwin continued to work occasionally at the facility during the two years Phase One managed it.
“I got to learn to drive a zamboni,” Baldwin said. “That was one of the neat things about it. Nothing elevates you in the eyes of some young teenage boys more than to be called at 11 (o’clock) at night and hear ‘Mr. Baldwin, can you come out and give us a zam?’”
The rink’s ice was kept frozen by natural winter temperatures, limiting its season to colder months. In June 2001, the Kenai council voted to spend $1.2 million installing a system of coolant-circulating tubes in a concrete pad under the ice. According to previous Clarion reporting, the refrigeration system allowed the facility to have ice as early as September and as late as April.
According to Baldwin, the council decided that “if they were going to spring for the refrigeration, they felt they needed to control the facility.” At the same meeting, the council voted to buy out Phase One for $400,000, beginning city ownership of the rink which continues to this day. The city presently contracts ice rink operation to Redline Sports.
“By then we’d proven what we believed, which is that this facility would really get a lot of use — especially if they left it open in the evening for kids to come skate at night,” Baldwin said.
Included in the city’s purchase price, Baldwin said, was money for Phase One investors to pay off the remainder of their initial loan from the bank. He said none of the investors made a profit on Phase One, though he believes they could have paid off the loan from the facility even if a lack of refrigeration had forced them to operate it only in the winter. Becoming a profit-making enterprise had never been in Phase One’s business plan, he said.
Though it began with one phase, the ice rink has been through many more since. A fourth wall was eventually added, as well as warm-up huts for hockey players donated by the Kenai Rotary Club. Before the Arctic Winter Games came to Kenai in March 2006, the facility was upgraded with steel bleachers and heated spectator areas. Prior to the Winter Games, oil company ConocoPhillips bought naming rights for the rink for $5,000 a year, giving it its present title. The Kenai Council voted to spend $30,000 to design locker room upgrades in July 2014.
Baldwin thought the public participation that created the ice rink can be a model for other development in Kenai.
“The problem with a lot of recreational facilities is I don’t think they generate enough to pay for themselves,” Baldwin said. “But we believed we could have a rink that would — primarily because of the teams that would use it for practice and pay for the ice time.”
Renting the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex for a hockey game costs $530, according to Soldotna’s schedule of fees and fines, while Kenai’s fee schedule states that reserving the Kenai ice rink costs $125 per hour. Tilly said the relative cost wasn’t a deciding factor in the venue change.
At the Jan. 11 Kenai varsity hockey game against Colony High School, Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel will do the ceremonial first puck drop, and an event will be held to recognize the Phase One investors. Baldwin said he plans to be there.
Kenai Information Technology Manager Dan Castimore is the son of Phase One investor Jack Castimore. He remembers being one of the volunteers working on the frozen ground during the rink’s construction, and said the wide-ranging community involvement in the ice rink makes it different from many of Kenai’s other recreational facilities. Accessibility is another thing that Castimore said makes the Kenai rink unique.
“When it’s not rented, anybody can use that facility,” Castimore said. “The door’s unlocked. Go over there at midnight in the winter, and there’ll be 30 kids playing hockey. Anybody can turn the lights on in that facility.”
For Baldwin, this is also part of its intended purpose.
“My argument was always that we’d all be better off if we could corral all the teenage boys in town under a bright light at midnight,” Baldwin said.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org