A pair of Republican state senators expressed concerns Wednesday about the timing of a University of Wisconsin-Madison plan to build a $27.7 million ice arena that would serve as a practice facility for the school’s men’s and women’s hockey teams.
The 74,940-square-foot arena is to be adjacent to the Kohl Center in Madison. In addition to being a practice arena for the men’s hockey team, the new facility would be a practice and event arena for the women’s team. It also would house offices and locker rooms.
UW-Madison originally intended to build the arena entirely through donations, but struggled to get enough money.
Following delays, the university raised $18.7 million and asked the state for $9 million in bonds to cover the rest. The state Building Commission approved the request Wednesday, but not without criticizing the university.
“These are tough times, so this has raised a red flag because there’s been a change in direction,” Sen. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, said. “As the state enters into the next budget, we’re potentially laying off employees, going to be asking state employees to take furloughs .. I guess someone needs to answer the question of, ‘Why?’ and, ‘Can’t it wait?'”
UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez insisted the project is vital to maintaining high-level men’s and women’s hockey teams.
“It comes to a point where, if we want to continue to be competitive, which our patrons tell us they want to, we have to make a move,” Alvarez said. “This is the time to do it, because of the cost of construction. We’ll never be able to build a facility at this cost again.”
The state already had approved the $9 million for an expansion to University Ridge Golf Course, but UW-Madison decided to shelve that project and put the money toward the ice arena. Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, said that process disturbed him.
“When we vote on these matters, we’re acting on good faith,” Kanavas said. “If we’re going to enter into these agreements, we have to know the gift funds are going to be there.”
Alvarez countered that the university is not seeking taxpayer money — just a loan that UW-Madison already has taken steps to repay. The university has announced plans to increase the price of hockey tickets by $2, a move that Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Alan Fish said would raise $500,000 a year.
“We came up with a very sound financial plan, which would not include state funding,” Alvarez said.
Sen. Spencer Black, D-Madison, agreed, saying, “This does not impact general purpose revenue that would otherwise be there.”
State approval for money is not the final step. UW-Madison also is working through the city’s development process.
Madison’s Urban Design Commission has approved the project, and UW-Madison is set to give a presentation to the Plan Commission next week.
Madison’s Joint Southeast Campus Area Committee on Monday passed the request, but attached a limitation that UW-Madison could not hold events exceeding 18,000 in attendance at the Kohl Center and new arena. The Kohl Center’s capacity is close to 17,000, and the new arena will seat 2,400.
Committee chairwoman Mary Berryman Agard attached the limit out of concern for nearby residents.
“I think it would be wise to restrict it (and) give the neighborhoods confidence they won’t be completely overwhelmed by parking problems,” she said.
The building plan — and the attendance limit — will be considered by the Plan Commission and Common Council. Alderman Michael Verveer has expressed support for the attendance cap, and Fish said he thinks UW-Madison can live with it if it helps move the project forward.
“I don’t think we’ll be pounding on the door to stop it,” Fish said.
With state approval for the project secured, Kaufert and Kanavas both expressed support for the UW-Madison Athletic Department, but said they wished the university had not changed course on the project’s financing.
“It’s almost a bait-and-switch, where we were sold one thing, and now we’re going to change it,” Kaufert said.