By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A pitch to build a new ice arena in the area grew into a bigger discussion about purchasing a 160-acre parcel that would serve as a county fairgrounds and a regional recreation complex with ice arena, bubble-enclosed soccer, track and baseball facilities and outdoor fields.
The plan, while in its infancy, was floated during a Blue Earth County Commissioners work session Tuesday morning.
The board heard from the manager of All Seasons Arena who made the case for construction of another ice arena — possibly near Caswell Park in North Mankato — to alleviate the heavy demand for ice time by area youth, high school and college hockey teams and figure skaters.
But Chad Surprenant, president of the architectural and engineering firm I&S Group, urged the commissioners to think more comprehensively. Surprenant said various groups, including youth soccer and baseball groups, have approached I&S in recent years about building facilities, but all were jettisoned because of cost.
He said a regional athletic complex would satisfy the growth needs of all sports groups while being financially feasible for all of them. Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg has worked with Surprenant on the idea of possibly combining such a facility with a new county fairgrounds. (The Blue Earth County fair is now held in Garden City.)
No specific locations were identified, but one general area discussed was east of Mankato toward the airport or between Mankato and Eagle Lake. The sports complex model would be based on one used at the Steele County fairgrounds in Owatonna, where a large and successful county fair integrates a regional sports complex on the fairgrounds.
The sports complex in Owatonna is heavily used and the buildings are also used for putting on the county fair — the largest county fair in Minnesota.
Such a facility here would dovetail with a process just getting under way to start a greater Mankato area Sports Facilities Commission that would oversee tournaments and sports facilities in the area. That commission, based on similar ones in Rochester and other regional centers, would presumably run a new facility here and book it for tournaments and other events, such as trade shows, to increase visitor revenue as well as provide facilities for area teams.
Which government entities would be involved in buying land and building the facility — along with money raised by youth sports groups, through grants and other sources — is yet to be determined.
Currently, several local governments own and operate All Seasons Arena — the two-ice-sheet arena near MSU: Blue Earth County, Mankato Public Schools, Mankato, North Mankato and Skyline.
Surprenant said a sports complex would probably be built in stages with a new ice arena likely to be the first built.
Whether the proposal will gain traction will be determined as other local governments and sports groups begin discussing the idea.