By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously March 1 to void a lease with the Sandpoint Community Center Corporation, which had proposed to bring an $8 million indoor ice arena to county property near the fairgrounds and sheriff’s complex.
The lease spurred vigorous debate since its adoption on Oct. 26, pitting Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler against both the nonprofit group and commissioners.
The vote to void the lease accompanied a vote to acknowledge that Bonner County violated Idaho open meeting law when noticing the lease late last year.
Wheeler, who has opposed the ice rink being located on what he sees as sheriff’s complex property, lodged the OML complaint in December, alleging that commissioners failed to adequately notify the public of “misappropriation of county property,” as he called it on the Bonner County Sheriff’s Facebook page.
In an opinion released Feb. 16, the Idaho attorney general’s office called the agenda item in question too vague under Idaho Code. The original description on the agenda stated: “FAIR — Darcey Smith 1) Action Item: Discussion/Decision Regarding Lease Agreement, Sandpoint Community Center Corporation.”
“As written, the agenda item appears to involve the ‘fair.’ There is no mention of ‘ice rink,’ ‘parking lot’ or ‘property adjacent to the fairgrounds’ — all terms that would have assisted the public in identifying the probable item of discussion,” the AG’s office determined.
Wheeler, in a Nov. 4 Facebook post, called the lease an attempt to “defund the police,” “giving away” county property that he sees better suited for an expansion of the Bonner County Jail or a new justice center.
According to Commissioner Dan McDonald, who worked closely with the fairgrounds and Sandpoint Community Center Corporation (SC3) to create the lease agreement, Wheeler has taken “creative license” with his claims to county property and “so-called facts.”
“The sheriff keeps claiming we are giving the land away, and that is of course factually incorrect, as the county retains ownership of the land,” McDonald told the Reader on Feb. 7, shortly after Wheeler hosted an informational meeting on the ice rink issue at a local church. “Should the ice rink fail, the county retains all improvements by SC3 at no cost.”
However, the success or failure of the Sandpoint Ice Arena — at least located on Bonner County-owned property — is now off the table. Aside from the voided lease, in conjunction with the open meeting law violation, another development has paved the way for this shift: the collaboration between SC3, North Idaho Ice and the city of Ponderay, now working together to bring an ice rink project to fruition at the city’s Field of Dreams.
“Ponderay Mayor Steve Geiger has held discussions with Commissioner Dan McDonald and Dr. Robert Pierce, SC3 board president, and has advised them that the city of Ponderay is open to all public-private partnership options,” according to a Feb. 18 media release from the city of Ponderay.
The potential collaboration would “help the city to leverage the local option tax funds to further our vision for the Ponderay Field of Dreams,” city officials stated.
NIICE has been working with Ponderay to build an ice rink with the goal of having an ice sheet accessible to the public by next winter. In an interview with the Reader in early February, NIICE representative Tim Wilson recognized that his group and SC3 shared a common goal: to provide local people a place to ice skate. However, what set them apart was their project scale and timelines. NIICE’s motto, “attainable, affordable, achievable,” did not align with the $8 million indoor Sandpoint Ice Arena vision.
On March 1, Pierce told the Reader that members working toward both SC3 and NIICE’s goals are “all friends” who have simply gone different routes with similar visions.
“[W]e believe and will support NIICE and the portable rink idea — we need to get kids skating as soon as possible,” Pierce said. “We also believe that we can work with NIICE and the city of Ponderay, to polish the plans for a quality indoor rink for our community.”
While Pierce said not everyone involved in the ice rink project is convinced that they can raise money for an indoor facility, he still hopes to convince them to try.
“To us, it makes perfect sense to ask the public to help us with this community project,” he said. “We will support NIICE and get something on the ground ASAP, and we can raise funds for the greater vision together.”
Pierce said that the SC3 proposal for the Bonner County property suffered from a lot of “misinformation,” and reiterated that the goal was always to help the fairgrounds supplement its income while providing after-school programs for local children.
“Personally, I expect my elected officials to have mature, factual discussions in a conference room rather than on social media or in the paper,” Pierce said, referring to the opposition from Wheeler.
“I know for a fact that the county commissioners were doing something for the good of local kids and families, while also being fiscally responsible,” he added. “In the end, elections decide what is acceptable behavior for our leaders.”
As for SC3’s current goals, the ice rink is still front and center — a project that Pierce called a “no-brainer” as an option for local recreation and a complement to the area’s tourism economy.
“Ponderay’s excitement and willingness to embrace the Ice Arena project led us to join them,” he said. “NIICE has done an amazing job keeping this on the front burner. We are all pulling on the same rope and any differences of opinion will be sorted out over a conference table.”
McDonald noted March 1, as commissioners voted to void the SC3 lease and effectively leave the ice rink issue behind them, that he had secured a letter from the nonprofit confirming that they also wished to “void the contract.”
“We covered our bases,” he said.
In an email to the Reader the same day, McDonald said that while the fairgrounds will miss the potential income from the ice rink, he is glad to see the dream live on in Ponderay.
“Everyone is on the same page and it only makes sense to have everyone rowing in the same direction on this project,” he said.
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