by Benjamin Pierce
Dozens of children bustled around Janesville Ice Arena excitedly on Wednesday, smiling and laughing at each other. The smell of coffee grounds and used hockey equipment lingered in the lobby.
Championship banners were displayed like statues hanging from the rafters, and spotlights shone down onto the freshly groomed ice below. The bleachers featured clusters of parents talking and watching the practice that had just begun.
The hockey community in town is trying to spread the excitement around Janesville as conversations surrounding a new ice arena have heated up.
In late April, the Janesville City Council authorized the spending of $25,000, which covered half of the cost for the design and business phase of the ice arena project.
The Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau paid $25,000 towards the plan as well. The two groups also split the cost of a survey and feasibility study last year.
The council has reduced location options to the Janesville Mall, a vacant lot by Wright Road and Milwaukee Street and a separate vacant lot near the Janesville Youth Sports Complex.
The youngsters on the ice Wednesday were warming up for the final session of the annual Janesville Youth Hockey Club introduction to hockey program, an annual three-week course that teaches kids ages 6-8 the basics in the sport of ice hockey.
Some of the players on the ice are already J-Hawks, the mascot for the Janesville Youth Hockey Club, but the hope is that the kids trying out the sport for the first time at the event will join as well.
A game of pluses and minuses
According to Neighborhood and Community Services Director Jennifer Petruzzello, each site has pros and cons.
“I do think that there are a lot of different aspects that may make the sites more preferable over one another,” she said.
Petruzzello said the Janesville Mall location is still in the works. The big question going forward is whether the rink would be attached to the current building or if it would be a separate structure on the lot.
Among the positives of the site are proximity to restaurants and retail options. The interstate exchange allows for easy access to this location as well, and city infrastructure such as water and sewer mains are already in place at the location.
But the site does have some problems.
If chosen, the space where Boston Store Inc. closed last year would likely need to be removed and repurposed. Part of that lot would likely be sold to the city for the rink, but the price point is unknown. Another problem is design restrictions.
“The design would be a little bit more restricted by the design of what’s already there compared to a clean slate in a green field,” Petruzzello said.
Another option for the rink is on Wright Road in the Eastern part of the city.
Petruzzello said the location is accessible with neighborhood restaurants nearby, and other open lots nearby could also be developed commercially as separate economic projects from the ice arena.
Negatives of the site include a farther distance from hotels, as well as from primary retail and restaurant locations on Milton Avenue.
The final spot the city is considering is a city owned lot near the Janesville Youth Sports Complex.
Petruzzello said this spot is easily accessible, and people are already used to traveling to this spot for youth sports. With it already being owned for the city, the price could be lower as well.
But the site could be taken off the table in short order.
An industrial project in the same spot is in the works, but it’s unclear whether the project will move forward. The developer of this project has until May 22 to choose whether they will build on the lot. If they decide against it, the city will have the option to reconsider.
Users say new arena is legitimate need
A decade ago, Janesville looked at bringing a new ice arena to town once it was announced that the North American Hockey League, a junior hockey program focused on advancing hockey players to the NCAA, came to town with the Janesville Jets.
Instead, the community chose to rehabilitate the current facility, but the rink is showing signs of its age.
“The economy when we got here ten years ago was literally on the heels of GM closing,” said Janesville Jets President Bill McCoshen.
“Today it’s much more dynamic, and there’s more investment and more jobs. The economic difference is spectacular, and I think this arena is going to benefit the next few generations of Janesville.”
Petruzzello also said the growth of the community has impacted the need.
“I think [the Jets] are a very valued part of our community. Youth hockey continues to grow,” she said.
A new facility would be “phenomenal” for Janesville according to McCoshen.
“Ten years ago when I first got here, there was real conversation about closing the rink for good. I think we’ve leveled that off, and people have rallied behind the Jets and hockey in Janesville,” he said.
“But in a new, two-rink facility we could do even more,” McCoshen said. “The potential is unlimited to bring events that would fill restaurants, fill hotels and have people filling up gas tanks at local gas stations in Janesville. It’s a win-win-win.”
McCoshen pointed out that the current rink has the coach offices on the opposite end of the rink from the locker room, so the coaches must walk through fans and the concourse to get to the room.
“You lose a game, and it’s kind of a walk of shame,” McCoshen said. “The players walk through the fans to get to the ice, and there is a cool aspect to that, but it’s unusual.”
McCoshen said it’d be nice for the team, but that he thinks the fan experience is where the most benefit would be seen, citing the current rink’s lacks a video scoreboard for replays and fan interaction as an example.
The need can also be seen at the area high school and youth levels.
The Janesville Bluebirds, the city co-op hockey team for Janesville Parker and Janesville Craig high schools, have a hard time getting practice time. The team shares the rink with the Jets, the Janesville Youth Hockey Club, figure skating clubs, adult leagues and more groups.
“During the season, we’re the only team that doesn’t have a practice on our off days,” said Bluebirds coach John Mauermann.
Mauermann said the team could go entire weeks without practicing. When they do practice, they often split the ice with the area girls’ team, the Rock County Fury. If the team wants to practice on a Thursday, practice is at 5:45 a.m. because the figure skating club gets the ice after school.
“We’ve lost about 20 percent of our ice due to scheduling issues,” Mauermann said. “More ice is going to help us, and at the same time it’s going to help the girls too because then they’ll have a place for consistent practice.”
Mauermann said the adult leagues are growing in Janesville and that a new facility could help bring in money by looking to see if the Milton High School team would want to practice there too, something the city had looked at.
“What brings people to Janesville in the Winter? It’s hockey,” Mauermann said.
“This is an exciting opportunity for us to do this right and bring people in from all over. A new hockey rink is not a burden, it’s an asset.”
At the youth level, the J-Hawks need more ice time.
More than 230 kids currently participate in youth hockey in Janesville, but that number could be even higher according to Janesville Youth Hockey Club President Ed Chady.
Chady said the problem is that so many people are competing for ice time. He said the 12-and-under age group sometimes practices until 10 p.m. on a school night and added that multiple teams share the ice at a time.
Last year the organization had three concussions in the 7-8-year old age group. All four came during practice because there were four teams sharing the ice and there wasn’t much room.
“We just don’t have the availability right now,” Chady said.
If the new arena was built, Chady said the organization would benefit in multiple ways. Two of those ways were girl’s hockey and economic impact.
“One of my goals is to have a girl’s team at every age level. Right now, maybe ten percent of our players at the team level are girls,” he said.
With more ice time and a focus on girls’ hockey, Chady believes the sport would grow even more.
“We had the 12U girls team this year, and it was awesome. We get a lot of girls joining at a young level, but it diminishes because they have to play with the boys. This rink could create a much more inclusive environment for the girls by having their own teams,” he said.
At the economic level, Chady said the organization could be bringing a lot more revenue into the community with more sheets of ice and more tournaments.
“Having multiple high school teams, the Jets and the Fury all here, we’re only allowed to take the ice for an entire weekend twice a year,” he said.
With that provision, the organization hosts just two tournaments across all the age levels–one state tournament and one individual tournament each year.
“Tournaments bring in some serious revenue to the community, and we could be hosting a lot more of them. Sun Prairie has two rinks, and they’ve got a tournament almost every weekend. They’re close to 20 [tournaments] a season, and we have two,” Chady said.
A puzzle with endless possibilities
The blueprint for the ice arena would include a number of uses.
The feasibility study suggested two ice arenas, a flexible athletic space and recreational space as well.
One sheet of ice would be permanent, while the other temporary sheet of ice could be taken down to create more recreational space. The permanent ice rink would include 1,600 seats, and the removable ice sheet would have removable bleacher-type seating.
The city is still trying to determine what the non-ice areas will include, but Petruzzello said the possibilities are out there.
“When we did the study, we looked at non-ice usage, and we really wanted to look at what the needs were for the community. The extra space could be dry courts like basketball, tennis and volleyball. It could be a turf for soccer and things like that, or it could be a combination of those.”
Petruzzello said a playground and/or walking track is in discussion as well. Space that could host a skate sharpening room, pro shop or party rooms has also been discussed.
Like Chady and McCoshen alluded, Petruzzello said the economy would get a big boost from the facility. She said the city has had to decline the Milton High School hockey team from renting the rink for practice because there isn’t enough ice time.
“We see a need for indoor recreation space. We’re trying to meet those needs and also help the economy with the building,” Petruzzello said.
She said the temporary rink would be taken down sometimes so that the facility could host basketball or volleyball tournaments for extra use and revenue.
“The focus of the facility is two-fold,” she said. “We’re trying to meet a local need where we’re hearing programs aren’t utilized to their full capacity, and users are using the rink at times that are not really conducive.”
The building is estimated to cost between $24-29 million. Petruzzello said financing the building would likely be a result of a public-private partnership.
The public aspect of the money would likely involve borrowing money, she said. Construction costs would likely be covered partly through taxes. The city continues to look at grant opportunities and the private sector, which could include donations and fundraising.
She said the project could have a net new impact of $13 million and would create multiple new jobs. The feasibility study estimated that the project would bring an additional $15-17 million in annual spending to Janesville.
“It’s a project that would have a long-term impact and have a long life expectancy,” Petruzzello said.
The city will now look at site-specific designs for the facility and narrow a price before hoping to settle on a primary site.
What might an end result look like?
Blueprints can be made and people can speculate, but often these massive community projects can be hard to imagine. There are so many moving parts and people/groups involved that the end project can be a bit of a blur.
One hundred sixty-five miles away in another Wisconsin community, the Village of West Salem sits near Lake Neshonoc. The community can be overshadowed by nearby La Crosse and Onalaska, but the recent addition of a community athletic complex in town has people excited.
The complex has an area for the gymnastics team as well as a single ice sheet and multiple locker rooms and storage areas. The referendum also built baseball diamonds and tennis courts.
The building was constructed through a school district referendum as opposed to the city route Janesville is considering, but the impact of a new facility has community members excited.
West Salem High School Principal Mike Malott said West Salem has been excited since the construction project, which is still ongoing, started.
“They are really excited,” he said. “It’s such an upgrade from what we had. People are proud of it and know that it’s a unique opportunity.”
Eric Borre, high school social studies teacher and head high school hockey coach in West Salem, said the ice arena was an incredible addition in its first year of use this year.
“We had more people attending games than we did in the old rink. There was a lot of excitement and people wanting to come see what hockey is about here,” he said.
And while the fan experience is important, he said seeing the community utilize the building has been quite the show.
“Whether it’s a first grader learning to skate, a middle school broomball tournament or a high school game, people can come and be comfortable and have fun,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”
He mentioned that physical education classes at both the middle and high school levels have used the complex and that the baseball, softball and tennis teams have used it for practice when the weather was bad.
“It has already proven worth it,” he said. “For the kids to have a space that is definitely their own is something I know they appreciate.”
Borre said the economic possibilities are endless.
“We are in a better spot with the new facility than the old one. We have a hockey rink next to tennis courts next to baseball fields. Every sport could have a tournament every weekend,” he said.
In Janesville, such an experience could be coming soon. For McCoshen and everyone else involved, there is hope.
“We are night and day from ten years ago,” McCoshen said. “There is a general assumption in town that this is going to happen. No one knows exactly how or when, but people know it’s happening, and we’re excited for that.”
Petruzzello said if it happens, the city will do it right.
“This is a long process and a big project. It’s something we take seriously, so we want to make sure we have a good quality project at the end if we do build the facility.”