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Story Last modified at 10:57 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, 2011

McDonald Center gets to grow
Turf to join ice rink in response to 'surge' of soccer interest

Alaska Star


A worker clears water from the skating rink at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center during a high-school game earlier this season. The center is slated for a major expansion this year.
Star photo by Matt Tunseth

"The Mac" is getting a major makeover.

By this time next year, municipal officials say, the long-established hockey venue for Chugiak-Eagle River should also offer up a new indoor turf field with a track and a maintenance shop.

Built in 1984, the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center has stayed the same size even as the local population has roughly doubled, said John Rodda, the center's original manager who now serves as director of the municipal parks and recreation department.

Along with increasing pressure for ice time, the Mac has "seen a huge surge" in requests for an indoor soccer venue, Rodda said. "We see a lot of need for indoor activities, particularly in the winter months."

Rodda hopes to put the expansion out to bid in about a month.

The Mac, built for $4.8 million, is a 38,000-square-foot, 700-seat facility that houses an Olympic-size ice sheet, a community meeting room and a walking/jogging track that runs around the perimeter of the rink.

The expansion would add 27,000 square feet. The addition would go 90 degrees to the right, lengthwise, from the existing building and share an entrance.

The municipality's base construction model totals more than $6 million, plus another $650,000 for optional add-ons such as a bigger turf area, storage and a vendor area, according to Rodda.

Funding will come from several sources.

The department has asked the Assembly for $1.1 million out of the Eagle River/Chugiak Parks and Recreation Service Area Fund to pay for the work, as well as about $775,000 in interest and other revenues. That request was introduced at the Assembly's March 8 meeting and will come up for a hearing on March 29.

Another $3 million is coming out of state funds, Rodda said. Any other funds would come out of a capital mill levy approved in 2004.

The muni last year spent about $1.1 million retrofitting the Mac: upgrading to energy-efficient boilers; installing radiant heat over the stands; and switching to energy-efficient lighting.

Harry McDonald was a hugely popular hockey coach killed in a plane crash in 1994. His son, Reid, runs the center, which is operated by private nonprofit Fire Lake Arena Management Inc.

There was talk amongst municipal officials last year of putting SMG – the company that operates public facilities in Anchorage such as the Sullivan Arena – in charge of the McDonald Center to save money. That didn't happen, however.

Rodda cited a "large hue and cry" from the community here as the reason.

One of those objecting was Sam Cotten, a former legislator from Eagle River who led the charge in the Legislature to build the McDonald center and serves on its five-person community board. Cotten said the biggest concern about the switch was simple: Reid McDonald was doing a fine job and the board wasn't hearing any complaints.

It didn't make sense to move to an outside operator when center funds are all collected locally, Cotten said. "We felt it was probably better to have a local board unless there was some other reason we weren't aware of."

Asked about the apparent conflict in moving ahead with an expensive project while sidelining plans to save money with a different manager, Rodda said the expansion project was going to happen regardless.

"This project, no matter who operated the facility, was moving forward," he said. "The goal was to come up with the facility that serves the public interest as best as we possibly could."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 17, 2011.