Ice arena proves Sun Prairie’s boom is more than just big boxes

Amid all the changes and economic hoopla along U.S. Highway 151 in Sun Prairie —including the recent openings of Marcus’ Palace Cinema and the area’s first Cabela’s, plus Woodman’s, Costco, and retail galore — there’s another addition to the community that may be smaller in size, but no less significant.

It’s just on the other side of the highway.

The Sun Prairie Ice Arena, adjacent to Sun Prairie High School, has been exceeding the athletic and social dreams of the community ever since it opened in January 2014. It was an eight-year dream of the Sun Prairie Youth Hockey Association, and the economic benefits it’s bringing to Sun Prairie are impressive.

Stevens Construction handled the general contractor work on the arena, but for Stevens’ CEO and Sun Prairie resident Mark Rudnicki, his involvement began on a more personal level. His son was involved in youth hockey as a 5-year-old, which exposed Rudnicki to the local hockey community and the need for a better facility.

“Sun Prairie had one of the longest-running self-sustaining youth hockey associations in the state,” he says. “The old rink was outdated and inefficient. It’s useful life was over, and it was cold!”

For years, Rudnicki was part of a community group interested in bringing a new arena to town, but as costs rose it became apparent that an all-out volunteer effort would make or break the project.

A team effort

The hockey community showed up in droves, with more than 100 volunteers joining forces to make the arena project happen. Roman Szymberski, Stevens’ project manager, was impressed by their fervor. “They did all the painting in the locker rooms, they installed the piping below the ice surface that freezes the ice, under supervision of the contractor. That was a huge savings.

“They laid out all the rubber floor mats that skaters walk on, did landscaping around the facility, and general cleanup,” Szymberski continues. “The interesting thing was, they were coming to work when we were going home, so they had to understand where the hazards were.”

Szymberski estimates the volunteer efforts saved over $100,000 in project costs.

But other groups pitched in as well, according to Rudnicki. Among them — and at risk of excluding all in-kind donations — the City of Sun Prairie provided the land and Madison Crushing & Excavating donated a large part of the initial excavation. Hallman/Lindsay chipped in with large quantities of paint, the Bank of Sun Prairie helped with financing, and Stevens Construction, in addition to its general contractor role, covered the costs of some smaller projects as completion drew near and traded some expenses for the opportunity to have its company logo at center ice.

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If you build it …

Visitors enter the building on a mezzanine level that peers down over two NHL-sized ice sheets, thanks to JLA Architects, which provided a state-of-the-art, hockey-friendly design. Custom bleachers, made with 3,500 cubic yards of poured concrete, can accommodate up to 1,700 spectators, and locker rooms, concessions, a dance studio, and a Willie Ty's Eatery on-site restaurant are added public benefits.

Originally, the plan was to melt one of the two ice sheets during the summer months to provide extra rental space for both commercial or private events. But because the ice arena was so successful in its first year, both rinks will remain open this summer, according to Neil Stechschulte, director of economic development for the City of Sun Prairie. And business has picked up at city restaurants and bars when hockey tournaments are in town, he says, with many establishments now checking the arena’s events calendar so they can beef up on staff and supplies.

A typical eight-team hockey tournament may bring 175 to 200 athletes and coaches to Sun Prairie for a weekend, plus as many as 300 to 500 family members and friends. “City staff estimates the average spending on hotel stays, restaurants, fuel, and general merchandise to conservatively be $20,000 to $30,000 per event of this kind,” Stechschulte says. “Based on this estimate … 30 such tournament events could generate $1 million in one-time direct economic activity per year in the community.”

And that’s just for hockey.

Other events, including figure skating competitions and recreational leagues, could tack on significantly more. Currently, the Sun Prairie Ice Arena, the City of Sun Prairie, and the Madison Area Sports Commission are hoping to bring a national figure skating competition to the ice arena in 2016 or 2017, according to Stechschulte.

“Volunteers really helped make this happen,” Rudnicki says. “It’s one of the best private hockey rinks in the state. There are very few facilities like it.”

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