County names new operator for NLA

ALPENA -When the Northern Lights Arena ad hoc committee adjourned from its meeting on Friday it was with the intent to recommend to the full board of commissioners that the county take over operational control of the arena and hire a manager to oversee operation. Over the weekend that recommendation changed.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the committee reversed course and recommended entering into a three-year contract with the Northern Lights Arena-Community to handle the scheduling, maintenance and finances of the arena. The recommendation was approved with a 6-1 vote, with Chairman Cam Habermehl the only vote against. Commissioner Lyle VanWormer was excused for the meeting, as he is out of state.

The group, which is made up of a blend of former management group Multi-Purpose Arena Coalition, as well as some new members, agreed to allow up to three commissioners onto its board, each with a vote. After each year of the contract the new management group will be evaluated and it is expected there will be out clauses for both parties in the new deal.

The county and members of M-PAC have had a somewhat contentious relationship over the last several years, but both sides hope they can come together and do what is best to keep the arena financially solvent and available for community members to enjoy.

Bill Peterson, former president of M-PAC and current chairman on the NLA-C board, said he is thrilled the county reconsidered its position and believes the hard feelings from the past can be laid to rest.

“I’m happy they made the decision they made. It is the best thing they could have done at the present time. We’re ready to do it and ready to move forward,” Peterson said. “I know the county was behind the eight-ball because all of this popped up so fast. We have said all along that we want to work with the county. That is why we put three commissioners on the board, so they can oversee and watch us. Everything has to be done out front and in the open.”

It appears at least part of the county’s concerns about taking over total control of the arena and deciding instead to allow the management group to do it was because of money. Commissioner Mark Hall said he believes it would cost about $60,000 to hire a new manager and an additional $30,000 to get the arena operational after it reopens in six weeks.

The money is not budgeted and the commissioners are hesitant to take from its fund balance. The arena will be closed and the power shut off beginning today so the county can have the demand charge for electricity can be zeroed out. Hall said it was not an easy vote to make. He said the county faced a similar move about a year ago and it worked out well then.

“For me, this had a similar tone as what took place with the fair board,” Hall said. “We allowed them a chance to perform well, but only with a clear understanding that if it didn’t work out, there was another plan and other options. Hopefully you never have to use the other plan. I think this is almost the same scenario.”

Commissioner Scot McKenzie was on the ad hoc committee and made the motion to have the arena managed by the county. Tuesday he reversed his vote and decided to go with NLA-C. He said after Friday’s meeting there were talks between county officials about how the transition could be achieved and where the money would come from to do it.

“There was some talk among the commissioners about where the money would come from. We don’t have it in our budget right now to put together a team. Much of it developed this afternoon and we found some compromises,” McKenzie said. “It gives us a chance to get better prepared financially and it gives them a chance.”

In the proposal submitted to the county NLA-C stated it intended to have ice on one rink year round and to have the second sheet operational during the peak ice seasons. The commissioners were not in favor of either move, fearing the costs of doing so would be more than the revenue it would earn. Peterson said those plans and others will be considered.

“We are going to have to work together on that, so once the power comes back on and Ameresco is done doing the improvements to the building, we can get the arena open as soon as possible,” he said. “Right now we don’t really know what the game plan is.”

Although the power will be back on in the middle of June, it may not be until August before ice can be made. It is unclear whether Ameresco will be able to have the needed work done while ice is in place. If not, it could lead to cancellations of some ice-related events.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews. Read his blog, Upon Further Review … at