The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 23, 2013

'Mankato Dome' discussed at meeting

MANKATO — The "Mankato Dome" -- located on the Minnesota State University campus but serving community youth sports as well as MSU students -- could be open for use by Nov. 1, 2014, if enough pieces fall into place in the coming months.

That message was presented to MSU students and community members at a series of meetings Wednesday conducted by university officials and a consultant hired to complete a feasibility study on the proposed indoor sports facility. The audience of about 30 at the evening meeting showed interest, mixed with some skepticism, regarding an air-supported dome that could offer a field surface as large as the one in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

MSU Athletics Director Kevin Buisman thanked the crowd for coming on a night where temperatures were dropping toward zero and the wind-chill was much lower.

"I think that just accentuates the need for a facility like this in our community," Buisman said.

The idea of domed athletic facility combined with other outdoor sports fields was proposed less than a decade ago at MSU, only to be shot down by students objecting to the student fee increases required to finance the $14 million plan, Buisman said. A year later, students approved upgrades of about $6 million -- minus the sports bubble.

This time, the university is looking to build the dome as a joint-use facility with community uses -- primarily youth baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and other field sports -- getting 30 to 50 percent of the dome's hours of operation.

Community groups probably won't be asked to make up-front contributions to finance the facility, which could cost $7 million or more based on similar projects in other cities, he said. But local sports associations and other community users will be asked to commit to renting time in the facility before MSU would move forward with construction.

"I don't think we're talking capital investment,' Buisman said. 'I think we're talking usage investment."

In coming weeks, as part of a feasibility study being conducted by Sports Facility Development and Management, local sports organizations will be asked to sign non-binding letters of intent spelling out how much time they would rent in the facility, said Mark Bigelbach, owner of the Vadnais Heights company.

If the level of interest makes the project financially feasible and University leaders agree to proceed, binding contracts would be required from the sports associations before construction would begin.

"We're not going to build it on 'maybe'," Bigelbach said.

MSU students will also need to commit to helping pay for the facility through student fees assessed on all students or through rental fees charged to intramural teams and other student users, according to Buisman.

The feasibility study will include two to four options for different configurations of domes and different locations on campus. One of the more ambitious options would include a 130-foot-high dome large enough to contain two football fields -- big enough to host regulation baseball games.

A decision will also be needed on whether it would be a permanent year-round dome or a seasonal dome that is deflated and put in storage during warm-weather months.

Audience members questioned the impact of the facility on other potential sports facilities in the early stages of discussion by city and county governments, including talk of a recreational facility near North Mankato's Caswell Park or a large facility -- including a dome -- on Mankato's east side.

Ross Lange of Mankato said the MSU proposal might be the best choice for MSU, but he said the community needs to ask if that location is the best option for Mankato. The proposed campus facility doesn't include additional ice sheets for youth hockey -- something local officials have determined is a need -- and Lange wondered if a hockey facility should be paired with a domed sports complex rather than being built in separate locations.

"I'm not saying it's not the right place," Lange said. "... I'm just not convinced that MSU is the right place."

North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said he doesn't see why the dome couldn't be built in a separate location from facilities focused on skating, indoor swimming or other recreational purposes.

And Dehen said the prospects of getting a dome built anywhere locally are much higher with what MSU can offer. The big advantage is that an off-campus facility would be heavily used for youth sports on weekday evenings and weekends but could sit empty late at night and during the school day -- times when an on-campus dome would be used by MSU students.

Buisman predicted that the youth sports representatives at Wednesday's meeting might be more dubious of the idea of a shared facility with MSU. That's because the university hasn't traditionally shared its facilities with youth sports organizations, mainly because they're so heavily used already by MSU students.

Neil Kaus, executive director of the Mankato Peppers girls summer fastpitch softball program, asked Buisman to demonstrate the university's new cooperative spirit prior to asking youth sports associations to make a financial commitment to the new dome.

"Would you be willing to let us use the girls softball fields (on campus) in the summer?" Kaus asked.

Buisman offered to get together with Kaus and talk about the possibility.

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