Athletics group back to its strong suit
When School District 831 bought the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association Sports Center on Nov. 25, it freed the nonprofit group of a burden.
“It’s great,” said FLAAA President Al Hauge. “It’s a big load off FLAAA’s shoulders. We no longer have to worry about managing the brick and mortar.
“We’re far better at organizing tournaments than managing the day-to-day operations,” he added.
Former FLAAA Gambling Manager Larry Porter said he had mixed emotions, one of which was relief.
“I’ve been working on this thing 10 years,” he said.
Porter believes the arena is now in the right hands. He retired from the athletic association after the deal was done.
The sports center includes a year-round ice rink plus a multipurpose domed structure that offers a second ice rink in the winter and artificial turf for field sports the rest of the year. There are locker rooms for home and away teams, plus rooms for coaches and officials.
Forest Lake Cycle and Skate sells hockey equipment in a pro shop on the ground level. On the second story are a concession area with windows that overlook both playing surfaces, offices and a conference room.
FLAAA built the sports complex in 2008 after the school district closed its Maroon and Gold Arena located on Southwest Fourth Street in Forest Lake. Built in 1979, that building was considered too expensive to keep as a hockey facility and now is used for school district offices, maintenance and storage.
FLAAA started fundraising in 2007 for the new facility, located near the Forest Lake Airport at 5530 N. 206th St.
It accepted grants from the Hallberg Family Foundation, the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation and the Hardenbergh family. The Lichtscheidl family, owners of Forest Lake Cycle and Skate, donated money for naming rights.
Families helped out by participating in a recycling drive, a bean bag tournament and a hockey puck Wall of Honor in the lobby.
The Forest Lake Hockey Association president challenged members to a donation match.
Businesses bought advertising rights and hosted fundraisers. The local soccer association provided a used turf for the floor of the fieldhouse.
Even the land purchase was the result of generosity: Former airport owners Tom and Kay Doherty sold the land to the city of Forest Lake at a bargain price. The city owns the land on which the ice arena was built and the adjacent Fenway Park with outdoor baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse fields.
FLAAA brought in more than $1 million through fundraising, then borrowed $4.5 million to build the ice arena complex in 2008. But four years later, in 2012, the group approached the school district and offered to sell the sports center.
The volunteer organization (Porter was the only employee) found it difficult to keep up with administration and accounting. The lean summer months did not bring enough income to pay debt service, and it was necessary to make up the difference during hockey season.
After hiring a consultant to predict operating expenses and income, the school agreed to buy the ice arena through a 20-year lease purchase agreement for $3.3 million. The difference between the purchase price and outstanding debt was absorbed by the four local banks that financed the building project.
Now FLAAA can go back to its original focus. The group oversees six traveling sports with teams competing around the Twin Cities: hockey, baseball, fast-pitch softball, lacrosse, basketball and volleyball (girls only).
They also offer two in-house programs: football for boys in grades four through six and modified pitch softball for girls.
Lacrosse is in its second year but is growing fast. Hauge said the sport attracts boys who play football and hockey but not baseball, and girls who play soccer in the fall and are looking for a spring sport.
The organization was set up to match the area of School District 831. It reaches athletes in Forest Lake, Columbus, Wyoming, Scandia, Linwood, East Bethel, Ham Lake, Hugo, Lino Lakes, Marine, May Township and Stacy.
The elementary football program goes even farther, serving kids in Chisago City, North Branch, Pine City and Rush City.
Traveling soccer was a FLAAA sport, but in 2011 the Forest Lake Soccer Association merged with Chisago Lakes Soccer, forming Lakes United Futbol Club.
FLAAA has been around for more than 60 years to support youth sports. If you have a child in a FLAAA sport, you’re a member of the organization. You can learn more by attending meetings, held the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.
The FLAAA board is made up of one representative from each sport (eight members), five members of the executive board and five members at large. Elections are next month.
For the past 19 years, the main source of income has been charitable gambling profits, which have declined in recent years. Hauge said this is partly from the recession and partly from the smoking ban in bars.
“We’re starting to see a little increase,” he said.
Each sport pays an administration fee. From hockey, which has participation fees ranging from $400 to $1,600, FLAAA gets $10 to $20 from each fee paid.
Because the city of Forest Lake does not offer sports programs, Hauge said, “We play a vital role.”
Hauge predicts he will retire in a couple of years. Being president of FLAAA is a big job, he said, and the ice arena is “the icing on the cake.”
School district’s purchase
FLAAA is the biggest user of the sports center. The school district will have first rights to ice time under the new ownership, but officials do not expect changes in facility use.
“It’ll be seamless,” sports center manager Brian Christianson said. “People won’t notice any change.”
Christianson, formerly assistant manager of arenas in Lakeville, handles the day-to-day operations. He was hired in June by District 831. FLAAA reimbursed the district for his salary and benefits until the purchase was final.
He spends a lot of time on the phone: booking ice time, scheduling tournaments, ordering cleaning supplies, handling preventive maintenance and lining up equipment repairs.
Ice can be rented 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On weekends, Christianson said, the ice is busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
High school hockey teams practice on both ice sheets after school between 3 and 5:15 p.m. Youth hockey teams get ice time from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Two more full-time arena workers, a Zamboni driver and custodian, are being hired by the district.
Since deciding to buy the arena, the school district has also been involved in other ways, such as bringing in an HVAC expert to answer questions. Hauge called the smooth transition an example of how FLAAA and District 831 work effectively together.
“We’ve always had a great working relationship with the school district,” he said.
Hauge said FLAAA has donated more than $500,000 to the Forest Lake community. Most of the money went to activities in the school district, including sports, band, speech, athletic field improvements and equipment.
FLAAA will continue to manage the outdoor sports fields at Fenway Park. Last fall, Hauge said, the baseball association and the city shared the cost of redoing a baseball diamond infield.
“We lowered it 8 inches between home plate and the pitcher’s mound to get the correct level of play. It’s very nice now,” he said.
FLAAA will also run both concession stands, one inside the arena and one outside at the fields. For high school events, the school district leases the concession stand from FLAAA.
Pizza, hot dogs, pretzels, coffee and hot chocolate are sold.
“A huge seller is slushies, even at hockey,” Christianson said.
“They fly out of every concession stand at every event,” Hauge added.
Concessions could be outsourced, Hauge said, but keeping them in-house provides service hours for parents and part-time employment for students.
FLAAA will also keep its office and meeting space in the sports center.
Some changes are coming. A major one will be collaboration with the school district’s Community Education program. FLAAA sports camps will now be a joint program with Community Ed. Kids will also be able to participate in hockey through Community Ed, including introduction to hockey and 3-on-3 leagues.
“Now we can market through the schools to get more kids,” Hauge said.
Christianson said a junior hockey team, made up of post-high school players looking to be scouted, may move to the Forest Lake sports center for 7 a.m. practice time, if evening time can be found for games.
Besides hockey, another demand for ice time is for figure and pleasure skating. Currently the local Cutting Edge Skating Association offers classes.
After Jan. 1, Christianson is planning to add day-time public skating on Tuesdays and Thursdays to accommodate home-schoolers, third-shift workers and retirees. He may also offer $5 open hockey from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.