FAIRBANKS — Ice Alaska says it’s still on track to hold its first ice art show at its new home, even though a $1.5 million state grant is held up while the borough and Ice Alaska work out due diligence on the organization’s 25-acre site.
Ice Alaska board member Hank Bartos said preparation of the new home, which is less than a mile west of its old home on Philips Field Road, for the 2012 BP World Ice Art Championships, an event that draws thousands of people from around the world, hasn’t slowed. The championships will be held from Feb. 28-March 25.
“It’s going to be a reality,” he said. “The process is underway and it’s definitely going to happen. It’s going to be a bigger venue this year than it’s ever been.”
Ice Alaska purchased the land in June after the Alaska Railroad had it vacate its old site on Philips Field Road. The new site, now called the George Horner Ice Park, has plenty of room for Ice Alaska to develop and grow, but its past as an industrial site left a number of zoning and environmental questions in the air.
According to state rules attached to the money, the borough, which is on the hook with the state if Ice Alaska were to fail, has to clear up those questions before it can transfer the money, Paul Costello, the director of the Land Management Department said.
“Any time you’re dealing with public money, you have to do due diligence,” he said. “Should something happen in a worst-case scenario, should Ice Alaska fall apart — melt — not be able to produce, we’re obligated under the grant to either pick that up and manage it as a public ice park or recover the title and sell the land.”
Because the site was purchased relatively quickly, things the borough would typically investigate, such as zoning, environmental hazards and value, weren’t done, Costello said. To ensure the borough and taxpayers aren’t on the hook for a bad deal, he said, it’s the borough’s duty to make sure everything is taken care of.
It’s a strategy that has left some people involved with Ice Alaska frustrated with the timing. Bartos said they were hoping to have the site paid off sooner, and are stuck using money to pay interest that could be used on other improvements.
“We’re still looking for the money from the borough but we don’t have it yet,” he said. “We don’t know when we’re going to get it. There’s black and white and there’s gray, and there isn’t any gray in this.”
Costello said he understood their frustration, but the rules set forth by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development leave the borough in a tight place.
Initially, the biggest concern was the price Ice Alaska paid for the site. Ice Alaska paid about $2.3 million for the site when the borough’s assessed tax value was $681,000. A later third-party appraisal upped the value to about $1.76 million, which cleared up the borough’s concerns, but issues about soil contamination and zoning still remain.
Today, much to everyone’s relief, those problems are nearing a resolution. The previous owners of the site are helping Ice Alaska close the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s contamination file on the site, which Bartos said is expected to be resolved soon.
And the borough’s Planning Commission will hear the case for Ice Alaska’s rezone, which could be completed by late January.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Bartos said, adding Ice Alaska is getting more involved to push things along. “It’s important that we got this thing going. We want to make it happen faster.”
There are still a few legal questions to be solved before the money is transferred, such as how long will the borough be liable for the life of the project. The state has said that time is typically 20 years, but both Ice Alaska and the borough have asked for a shorter agreement.
The state Department of Law has been asked to look at the issue, but has yet to respond.
Costello said he can’t give a timeline of when everything will be resolved, but said it’s mostly in the hands of Ice Alaska to resolve at this point.
As far ice carving is concerned, Bartos and the rest of Ice Alaska are nothing but optimistic about next year’s event.
Bartos and Ice Alaska Board Chair Dick Brickley have outlined a grand vision of what the site will turn into during the next few years. Those plans include year-round activities, ranging from the popular ice sculptures, dog sleds, skating and in the winter, to summertime attractions, like sand-sculpting, wood-carving and just about anything else that can be fit onto the site.
“It’s just been a big community effort,” Bartos said, “and it’s going to be one of the best shows, and it’s going to get better every year.”