Last week’s blizzard ramps up the safety discussion

    For decades prior to 2010, when Crookston Sports Center opened its doors, there wasn't much of a concern if  local schools were closed or students were released early because of a winter storm. In those days, the Sports and Civic arenas were located downtown and were largely protected from the wind and reduced visibilities.   

    But with the CSC, that's no longer the case, and in the wake of last week's blizzard that closed school but still had some parents driving their kids in treacherous conditions on Fisher Avenue to play hockey or figure skate at the sports center, officials are talking about coming up with a CSC closure policy when winter weather takes an extreme turn for the worse.   

    At Tuesday's Park Board meeting, Parks & Recreation Director/CSC Manager Scott Riopelle said he's less concerned about the driving conditions during the day than he is when it gets dark. But even in the daylight visibility last Thursday was bad on Fisher Ave., he said, especially further east toward the arena. As drifts started to build up and extend across the roadway, a couple vehicles got stuck, spurring some other motorists to stop in the middle of the road. At the CSC itself, Riopelle said large drifts formed in the parking lot and several vehicles got stuck and had to be pushed out.   

    "We're in the country out here," Riopelle said. "Yes, we're within city limits, but it's open country, not like it was when we were downtown."   

    Tuesday's debate was specific to the CSC and didn't touch on any school district policies. When school lets out early or is cancelled, athletic practices and other after-school activities are typically cancelled in order for students to get home safely as soon as possible. But the CSC is a city-owned building and except on the very rare occasions when it has closed, hockey players and figure skaters have still been able to go to the facility during winter storms.   

    But last week's blizzard has ramped up the discussion on a CSC closure policy that would maximize not only the safety of young people, but their parents as well, as they're usually the ones driving to and from the CSC to drop off and pick up their kids. Park Board members on Tuesday asked Riopelle to check with other communities in the region to see if they have any closure policies in place at their arenas. He said he'd gather as much information as he could for comparison purposes, but added that most arenas in other cities are located closer to downtown and might not be impacted by a winter storm as much as the CSC is.   

    No matter what information Riopelle is able to glean, board chair Larry Brekken said "we need to worry about our own and take care of our own people" when crafting a policy and not be overly concerned about what other communities are doing.   

    Riopelle said he wants the CSC to be open as much as possible, and doesn't want a policy that's closely tied to the school district canceling school or releasing students early. "It would be hard for us to shut down every time the school shuts down; they've been doing that a lot lately," he said. "But in the dark, we're going to have someone in the ditch, someone's going to get hurt or killed. I'm a little fearful of that."   

    During last Thursday's blizzard, City Administrator Shannon Stassen added, city plow drivers with many years of experience behind the wheel stopped trying to plow on Fisher Ave. because the conditions got so bad. "So you don't want some 16-year-old driving and being put in a potentially dangerous situation if you can at all help it," he said.   

    Board member Kristy Morris Leas, who until last year was the longtime figure skating coordinator in Crookston, said she was often the first to get to the old downtown arenas when school was canceled or released early and she encouraged skaters to come, too. "But this is a whole new ball game," she said of the CSC's more rural setting. "If school isn't open I don't think the arena should be encouraging kids to come out and skate."   

    Riopelle said he also wants to avoid a situation where the weather is so bad that kids and staff at the CSC can't leave, and no one can come and pick them up, either. "I don't want my staff or anyone else to be put in that situation where they're stuck overnight," he said.   

    Board member Michelle Christopherson said she understands all of the safety concerns, but also noted that sometimes a predicted nasty winter weather forecast doesn't live up to its advance billing. She said she wouldn't want kids to be stuck at home on a "storm day" doing nothing because a policy mandates the CSC's closure when, in actuality, there's a reasonable opportunity for their parents to get them to the CSC to get some exercise and have fun with their friends.    

    "This is all good food for thought and some kind of policy will be good," Christopherson said. "It would be nice to maintain some flexibility, though, as conditions warrant."