The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 10, 2012

Mankato civic center expansion gets unfavorable DEED ranking

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Boosters of Mankato’s oft-sought and oft-rejected civic center expansion are headed for disappointment once again unless Gov. Mark Dayton decides to overrule the scoring system of his state economic development agency.

The civic center project’s request for a $14.5 million slice of a $47.5 million state funding pie was deemed the 17th most worthy application, tied with proposed street improvements in Winona. The state received 90 applications in all for the capital project grants made available by the Legislature as an alternative to earmarking the money legislatively.

While 17th out of 90 might sound like a relatively strong showing, the 16 projects scoring higher than Mankato have cumulative requests of just under $100 million — more than double the available funding. The top six scorers total more than $45 million in requested funding, nearly matching the total pool.

Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges called the scoring system “arbitrary” and said he was baffled by the local project’s comparatively low score for “project readiness” and its ranking beneath similar civic center projects in St. Cloud and Rochester.

The expansion of the Verizon Wireless Center has been a priority of the Mankato City Council, local lawmakers, Minnesota State University hockey boosters and many business leaders but has repeatedly failed to win funding through the traditional legislative bonding process. Some years it was left out of the bonding bill approved by the Legislature. Other years it was vetoed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, even while other civic centers in Minnesota received millions of dollars.

This year, lawmakers punted the chore of picking winners and losers to the Department of Employment and Economic Development, setting up the $47.5 million pool and assigning DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips to divvy up the money.

It was clear from the beginning there would be many more losers than winners as the 90 applicants asked for a combined $288.4 million — six dollars in requests for every dollar available.

Under DEED’s scoring system, Mankato once again finds itself behind other civic center projects. The $25 million request for a civic center upgrade in Rochester received the 12th best score, and St. Cloud’s $10 million request was ranked eighth.

The top project was a wastewater infrastructure improvement in Litchfield, which is seeking $2.6 million in state funds. Another sewer project in Hector ($1.3 million) was second, followed by a downtown development/parking ramp in Duluth ($10 million).

Rounding out the top five were infrastructure for a new business park in Lonsdale ($2.1 million) and a solid waste project in Renville and Redwood counties ($2.3 million).

Hentges noted that wastewater projects already have a dedicated pool of state funding to which they can apply. And he questioned how a mathematical scoring system could realistically compare the quality of such diverse projects.

“This scoring looks to be nonsensical,” he said Monday night.

DEED eliminated 53 of the requests even before the scoring was done and divided the remaining 37 into three geographic regions. That division apparently reflects the commissioner’s stated desire to spread the money around the state.

The top scorer in the metro region was a $27 million request for a new downtown St. Paul baseball park, and the Duluth project was tops in the northern region.

The geographic division doesn’t do Mankato any favors under the scoring system. Five of the top six scores statewide were in the southern region, and the ambitious $25 million Rochester request ranks above Mankato’s in the region.

If Phillips chooses to divide the money evenly between the three regions, it would leave about $16 million for the southern region. Even without the Rochester project, the other southern Minnesota applicants with better scores than Mankato’s have a combined total of nearly $14 million in requests.

The Mankato application did include a phased approach, which left the state with the option of providing $7.5 million to help accomplish $18 million of the $31 million total project.

Dayton has said that the final decision — expected in the next couple of days — would rest with him, and the Verizon expansion was one of eight applicants in the DEED process that were also on the governor’s proposed bonding bill.

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, said Dayton’s statement might have been simply an attempt to take some of the political heat off of Phillips.

If the DEED score sheet is the final word, Brynaert said she will need a lot more explanation for how the scoring was done. The 100-point system provided up to 25 points each for “project readiness,” “jobs” and “investment and leverage.” The final points were for “regional impact” (up to 20 points) and “other public benefits” (as many as 5 points).

“I’m not able to decipher the evaluation tool enough to comment on it,” Brynaert said.

As an example, she noted that Litchfield’s sewer project received 20 points for “regional impact” and Mankato’s application notched just 15 points for a civic center that draws crowds from across the region for concerts, conventions and Division I hockey games. Brynaert cautioned that she wasn’t attempting to denigrate the importance of the Litchfield work. She just wasn’t sure how the “regional impact” criteria was defined.

“I’m puzzled,” she said.

— Dan Linehan contributed to this story.