Determining whether there is contamination under the floor of Rimrock Auto Arena will be the first step in the process of determining if it is feasible for MetraPark to host a hockey team.

There is no point in pursuing the issue if tests prove that the ground is contaminated, requiring costly mitigation before ice could be installed, concluded an ad-hoc committee of the MetraPark Advisory Board, which is researching the possibility of adding ice to the arena.

Lyle Hill, who heads the committee that met last week, said that they will request a cost estimate to do the testing. The test is necessary because of suspicions that the previous ice making system was leaking glycol before ice events ceased and most equipment was removed. The cost of mitigating any contamination under the concrete arena floor could bring to a halt plans to bringing ice back to the arena. It would be better to know that at the outset, was the general consensus of the committee.

Comprised of Advisory Board members, county commissioners, Metra staff and hockey fans, the primary focus of the committee’s meeting was a preliminary assessment of the costs that would be involved for MetraPark to host an ECHL team, which has been a proposal, presented to the county-owned facility. County Finance Director Kevan Bryan presented a report that estimated the cost of adding ice for hockey would be approximately $3.2 million, plus an additional $540,000 for offices, locker and training rooms.

The costs would be less for ice that would accommodate just professional ice entertainment events. That would cost about $1 million.

Summed up, Bryan said “the county could pay to get ice and hockey related purchases …if County Commissioners wanted to re-allocate funds and ..come up with options. It would involve sacrifices in other areas.”

“It is Finance’s stance that there is nothing at this point which makes operations for hockey a profitable endeavor. While we may generate some CIP money, that does nothing to help the Metra fund itself….It would seem that the only options to allow for operating a hockey team would be a very, very favorable contract for Metra, continued community fundraising to support Metra’s losses, or a mill levy that would be voted on by our citizens,” reads Bryan’s report.

Not including payments on debt should its construction be funded by a loan, Bryan estimated that in a best case scenario ECHL Hockey could generate $180,000, plus the revenue it would generate to the capital fund (a per ticket fee charged for each ticket sold.) Whether hockey could be a viable event at MetraPark, said Bryan, would depend on whether county commissioners would want to subsidize another function . There are facilities at MetrPark that do not generate a positive cash flow.

Bryan was asked by county commissioners to do the research to make a “ball park” estimate as to the cost of hockey ice, following a lack of support to conduct a feasibility study, which was proposed at the committee’s meeting in March. Commissioner John Ostlund suggested, at that time, that the cost of a feasibility study be split into thirds among the team promoters, the county and the Billings Chamber of Commerce, which had sent a letter to commissioners supporting hockey and urging that the commissioners take action to install ice, but neither the Chamber nor prospective investors committed to fund the study.

Six months ago Metra Park was presented with the proposal for an ECHL team. Having no plans in place, nor any idea as to costs, and faced with a short time-frame in which to make a decision, MetraPark administrators and county officials passed on the proposal, but discussions continued with the private investors. 

Jim Tevlin, an interested hockey fan who has had contact with the investors, told the committee, that he doesn’t believe there remains any immediate interest in establishing an ECHL team in Billings. That information lessened pressure on the committee regarding timing of their research and planning efforts, but as pointed out by Hill, they should know the costs and possibilities, so that the next time a proposal is made, they are better prepared to respond.

Bryan said about the idea, “It is doable, maybe not optimal.” He added that he would definitely want some assurance that there would be an average game attendance of 2000, before endorsing the idea of borrowing money to build an ice arena. Other events at MetraPark, including past hockey ventures, fell short of that attendance level, but the caliber of ECHL Hockey is expected to attract more spectators.

At the MetraPark Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday, Bryan said, “I don’t think it is a closed issue, but to do it only for a hockey team makes it more of a challenge.” Having ice at Metra should be projected for more purposes rather than just a venture that could fail.

Marketing director Ray Massey said that he believed MetraPark would be able to capture two or three ice events a year if they had ice.

Bryan’s written report referred to the Victus Study regarding need in the community for sport venues, as being “very well done,” and would be worth exploring for a “non-hockey dependent” concept of returning ice to Metra.

Bryan agreed that scheduling ECHL games at MetraPark around other events is possible, and MetraPark could provide for storage of equipment on site or nearby. However, providing practice ice, locker rooms and other training facilities “is not financially and logistically realistic.”

Building offices and locker rooms would eliminate exhibit space, which would impact quite a number of regular events in the arena, including Wrangler Team Roping, the Nile Trade Show, Chase Hawks Hospitality, All-Class Wrestling, Montana Open Wrestling, “A” Divisional Basketball, “B” Division Basketball, NAIA Basketball, Watchtower, and Montana Fair, as well as occasional events that rent the entire facility such as Goldwing or BMW.

One comment made at the Advisory Board meeting suggested that maybe they should change their focus for ice, from the arena to one of the exhibit buildings at Metra.