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Published May 03 2010

Anonymity of Fergus Falls ice arena donors criticized

Some opponents of a planned Fergus Falls, Minn., ice arena are taking backers to task for releasing little information about who is making pledges toward the divisive project.

The project combines $4 million in public dollars and $3 million in private donations. Critics say they are troubled by the anonymity accorded to all contributors; pledges are non-binding, they point out, and if any donors bail out, taxpayers will have to cover the difference.

“The money people have pledged might not come through, and then taxpayers are going to be the ones footing the bill,” says resident John Strauch.

Project supporters counter that community givers have an unblemished track record of keeping their financial promises. More information about pledges will come in due time, they say.

Last fall, the City Council committed $4 million in public funding to the new arena, which will host the city’s celebrated hockey program. Supporters set out to raise the remaining $3 million of the estimated construction cost.

Today, the council will vote on an ordinance directing the local port authority to issue taxpayer-backed bonds for the entire $7 million. Opponents planned to circulate a petition to block the ordinance and send the issue to a vote.

But more recently, the city attorney found a clause in the city charter that does not allow such a petition to block planned expenditures. Later this week, the council will discuss a half-cent sales tax, possibly a faster way than property taxes to pay off the bonds.

The arena fundraising committee is on track to hit its goal by July, supporters say.

“We’re getting close to the 3 million, but the last 10 percent seem to be as much work as the first 90,” says Chuck MacFarlane, the committee head.

Still, he expects pledges might slightly exceed $3 million. The extra money would cover equipment for curling, soccer or baseball.

Project supporters say the arena would cast the community as vibrant and welcoming to young families. Opponents have decried the city’s decision to pursue it without consulting taxpayers during an economic downturn.

They question the fundraisers’ insistence on keeping the identities of those making pledges private.

Critics such as Greg Palmer point out more transparency about donors would make them less likely to renege on pledges. That’s important because taxpayers are sharing the project cost with them.

“We’ve asked for the information, but we just get shot down,” Strauch says. “If they want this arena so badly and they put up money toward it, why not put your name out there?”

MacFarlane says it’s not unusual to keep donor identities private at such an early stage of a project. As the arena nears completion, most donors will get recognition. And, he says, the Fergus community has consistently come through.

“My understanding is we can expect 99-plus percent of the pledges to come in,” he said. “I would go on that track record.”

City Administrator Mark Sievert notes that of the roughly $750,000 pledged toward the city’s Bigwood Event Center, $5,000 – or less than 1 percent – didn’t materialize.

The Otter Tail Power Co., of which MacFarlane is president and CEO, made a contribution to the arena. He would not comment on the amount, but says it is not the biggest the project has received: “Ours is not the driving contribution.”

A second reading of the bond ordinance is scheduled for May 17. The sales tax work session is at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529