September 2023 – Edina has been dubbed “the center of the center of the hockey universe” by ESPN.
At that very center is Braemar Arena. Over the decades, kids who learned to skate there led the Edina Hornets to multiple state championships, won college hockey titles and even made it to the National Hockey League. Figure skaters who call Braemar Arena home have competed at every level, including the Winter Olympics.
“Braemar is an important gathering place in our city,” said Peter Fitzgerald, Edina resident, hockey player and coach. “At its core, Braemar is really a place for kids to have fun and compete. These are important things for kids to learn.”
But to Fitzgerald and many other hockey and figure skating supporters, the decades-old Braemar Arena no longer reflects the glory of the programs on its ice or the quality expected in Edina.
“Original mechanical equipment, poor ice surfaces, tired public areas and unsafe player and visitor drop-off areas are near the top of our concerns,” Fitzgerald said. “I believe our parks are a reflection of our community, and we aren’t looking very pretty at Braemar.”
So, Fitzgerald picked up the proverbial hockey stick and led the break to improve and modernize Braemar Arena. He headed the “Vote Yes” committee that convinced Edina voters to approve a sales tax increase to fund improvements at Braemar Arena and other Parks & Recreation facilities.
For those efforts, Mayor Jim Hovland honored Fitzgerald with the Mayor’s Individual Service Commendation for 2023. The award honors people for outstanding and exceptional volunteer service to the community at large.
“For Peter, it was always about the pursuit of excellence for Braemar,” said Parks & Recreation Director Perry Vetter.
Fitzgerald and other Edina hockey supporters started talking to Vetter years ago about arena improvements.
“They really wanted to understand why more money wasn’t going into Braemar Arena,” Vetter said. He had to explain the limited money in the Capital Improvement Plan and how funding is spread across all Edina parks and recreation facilities, plus all other City facilities and needs.
The conversations evolved into finding things that could be done in the short term and developing a long-term vision.
“Peter was the one who said, ‘Let us help bring together a grander vision,’” Vetter said.
Fitzgerald and his hockey-loving friends drafted former City Council Member Ann Swenson into their group set on improving Braemar Arena. They met monthly for two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Swenson said, developing a preliminary idea and numbers to not only improve Braemar Arena, but to add a fourth sheet of indoor ice.
Once the height of the pandemic faded, Fitzgerald went before the Edina Parks & Recreation Commission requesting City staff study Braemar’s needs and if improvements including an additional sheet of ice would pay off financially.
That analysis confirmed what Fitzgerald and his group hoped. As a result, the existing Braemar Park Master Plan was amended in 2022 to add a fourth sheet of indoor ice for Braemar Arena and specify more than $13 million in necessary infrastructure improvements.
To pay for these improvements, the City needed a funding source. Since the Braemar Park facilities -- which include Braemar Golf Course and Golf Dome, Braemar Field, Courtney Fields and the Arena -- are visited by Edina residents and people from across the metro area, it seemed fair all should contribute. The skating crowd and other park supporters convinced Edina’s legislative representatives to allow the City’s voters to decide on what’s called a local option sales tax. In the wranglings to get such a vote approved, the fourth sheet of ice was removed, but many of the other improvements stayed in the funding plan.
Thanks to Fitzgerald and his group, the hockey community stepped up with $3,000 to the “Vote Yes” campaign. And they worked to educate Edina voters on what the November 2022 vote was about and how it would improve Braemar Arena.
When the results came in, 59 percent of Edina voters approved imposing a half-cent sales tax for 19 years to pay for the improvements to Braemar Arena and Braemar Park.
Swenson, who played a huge role in getting the vote passed, nominated Fitzgerald for the Mayor’s Commendation Award.
“He’s kind of my hero and I’m his cheerleader,” she said. “Peter has been the driving force. Besides hockey, he does so much for his community.” She noted he was instrumental in efforts to improve the Valley View area, to develop what is now Town Hall Station and has assisted the Edina Housing Foundation in looking for property, among other efforts.
Fitzgerald says Swenson deserves much credit. “Ann has been a friend and mentor of mine for years and without Ann’s guidance, the investments which are about to happen in and around Braemar, including support for mountain biking and baseball, wouldn’t be happening.”
Fitzgerald, Swenson and company are not yet done. They are hard at work to get voters out one more time. This November, Edina voters will decide if they want to use that same sales tax – no increase or extension required – to fund that fourth sheet of ice, plus add parking, improve the pickup/drop-off areas and the lobby of Braemar Arena.
Visit EdinaatPlay.org to learn more about the already-approved improvements and the Nov. 7 referendum before voters.