BEMIDJI -- Ice will be hard to come by in Bemidji this summer.

The ice at Neilson Reise Arena, normally the only local rink that remains open during the summer, is being removed with plans to re-open in the fall, the city announced this week. The process of removing the ice began earlier this week.

The move was made due to social-distancing measures implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty over when those measures will be relaxed.

Minnesota’s stay-at-home order runs until May 4, though it was originally supposed to last until April 10 before being extended. The state released projections last week showing coronavirus cases will likely peak around midsummer.

“It’s unusual times and this decision wasn’t made lightly,” said Bemidji Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson. “It was a difficult decision. We know what the arena means to the community and skaters, whether it’s figure skaters or hockey players. But we felt it was the right decision financially to make for our community, as well.”

The city-owned arena was shut down March 17, along with most other city of Bemidji buildings, meaning no purchased ice time for skating or hockey has taken place since.

“We have lost revenue going on a month now,” Larson said. “Based on information at the last city council meeting, from Sanford (Health) and concerns about when we would be able to have some revenue stream coming in with the arena, we decided that we would need to remove the ice.”

Neilson Reise Arena is located at 1115 23rd St. NW in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
Neilson Reise Arena is located at 1115 23rd St. NW in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

The news was inevitably disappointing for those affected.

Burggraf Skating and the Bemidji Figure Skating Club make use of the arena throughout the year, as do a number of adult and youth recreational hockey leagues. General public skating sessions are also impacted, as are private sessions.

“It affects my business, for one thing,” said Scott McLean, owner of Burggraf Skating in Bemidji. “I have several programs that I do at Neilson Reise. So those are all canceled. I feel bad for the kids because a lot of kids, a lot of families, a lot of adults are on the ice during the summer. It’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances that’s put us here.”

Hockey players from Bemidji State, Bemidji High School and Park Rapids Area High School also use the arena during the summer, as well as a number of camps. CCM Minnesota Hockey High Performance programs have also taken place at the arena in years past, though Minnesota Hockey announced last month the cancellation of spring tryouts, festivals and summer camps.

“It’s devastating,” McLean said when asked how the shutdown will affect his business financially. “I own an off-ice facility and I can’t run any programs there, so I have no income. I have refunds that I need to send out. Basically, it’s going to be tough.”

There’s a possibility the Bemidji Community Arena could open at some point in the summer to make up for the lost ice time, BCA Board President Dale Thompson said, but that depends on how financially viable such a move would be. Construction on the BCA’s second rink has also resumed in recent weeks, which could factor into the decision over whether to make ice for the original rink.

Thompson expects a decision to be made within about a week.

Concerns over aging ice plant?

For years there’s been concern over the Neilson Reise Arena’s ice-making equipment due to its age and the product it uses becoming obsolete. The arena was built in 1964 and the machinery dates back to the 1970s.

“We certainly considered all that when we made the decision to turn the plant off,” Larson said. “We did everything we could to ensure that it’s in the best shape it can (be). It’s well maintained. It’s a very efficient system. We’re hopeful that it will start up in the fall.”

The R-22 refrigerant used at the rink is being phased out due to environmental concerns. Larson said the arena has enough R-22 to last through the near future.

The ice plant was most recently shut down in 2005 when the concrete floor was replaced with a sand floor. That was the last time the ice was removed.

“Normally you don’t take ice out on sand floors,” Larson said. “It’s not really recommended. But we couldn’t continue to leave the ice in as temperatures are increasing. We’re not really getting any revenue in, and so to keep the building cold and keep ice on it with no revenue for the long term was also not a good situation.”