The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 14, 2012

Outlook for Civic Center improved

MANKATO — Mankato’s civic center would be upgraded and expanded under a $29 million plan that would rely on the state bonding bill for half of the funding, and Minnesota State University is looking for more than $2 million to design a new clinical sciences building that will ultimately cost $36 million.

Those are the biggest Mankato projects that local officials will be hoping to see in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding plan when it’s released Tuesday. With the state’s two-year operating budget finalized last year, the 2012 legislative session that starts Jan. 24 will focus on construction work around the state to be financed with 20-year bonds.

South-central Minnesota will be seeking more than $100 million from a bill that Dayton has said should total around $775 million. In total, state agencies and local governments have requested nearly $2.3 billion in projects ranging from work at state parks and prisons to roof repairs at state colleges to local projects such as civic centers.

Republican leaders of the House and Senate haven’t said how large of a bill they’re planning to present to the governor later this winter or spring, but local Democrats think the governor’s target is about right considering that a nearly-$500 million bonding bill was approved as part of last July’s agreement on the two-year operating budget.

“That’s a good solid bill for this year,” said Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, who will be sponsoring both the civic center and the clinical sciences proposals.

Civic center expansion

The goal of expanding and improving the civic center has run into repeated roadblocks for years, usually in the form of vetoes by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (See accompanying story.)

The project has also changed nearly every time city officials have brought it back for another attempt at state funding. The current plan is for both the men’s and women’s hockey teams at MSU to make the Verizon Wireless Civic Center their home — for games and practices.

That would give the teams what’s required to compete with other colleges for recruits and for fan support, said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.

“They’re saying that’s what they need to really sustain their program,” Hentges said.

With both Mavericks teams moving downtown, it would also free up substantially more ice time for youth hockey teams at the increasingly overbooked All Seasons Arena, Brynaert said.

Along with the hockey improvements, the project includes a $14.5 million addition of meeting rooms and an auditorium that would be used both for performances and for conventions.

The auditorium will be used for performing arts events such as concerts and plays, but it’s more than a theater, Hentges said.

“It’s a little more flexible than a fixed-seat theater,” Hentges said.

That ability to use the space for conventions and other events will be important as the arena is dedicated more often to Maverick hockey games and practices.

Brynaert said the partnership between the city and the men’s hockey team, which has played its games downtown since the arena was built in 1994, fits with the common theme that taxpayer-supported institutions should be working together.

“In most typical college communities, the hockey arena would be up on campus,” she said. “We haven’t gone that route. ... We’re in this together as a community.”

The arena was constructed with local sales tax revenues rather than state dollars, which is also uncommon compared to other regional centers around the state. And Mankato officials have been making the argument for years at the Capitol that it’s only fair that the state help fund improvements after approving tens of millions of dollars for similar projects in St. Cloud, Duluth and Bemidji.

To host both MSU teams, new locker rooms and offices are needed and improvements to the 18-year-old facility are required, according to supporters.

“When we did this, it was state of the art,” Brynaert said of the civic center. “It’s no longer state of the art.”

Nearly $6 million dollars would go into arena upgrades, $2 million would cover land acquisition and the rest is for the auditorium, meeting rooms and other improvements related to the convention facilities.

Clinical science facility

A new MSU building — which would consolidate the university’s departments of nursing; dental hygiene; and speech, language and hearing — has moved up the priority list for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Two years ago, when design money was first proposed for the new facility on the east side of campus, it was 25th of MnSCU’s 31 requests. This year, the clinical sciences building is 14th of 26.

If the $2.1 million in design money is part of a bonding bill this year, another $28 million in construction funding is anticipated from the 2014 state bonding bill with a final $6 million allocation to finish the work two years later.

The project would create more classroom space to help handle the 25 percent growth in nursing school enrollment at MSU over the past decade, according to the MnSCU proposal. It also adds substantial space for clinics that are crucial to health sciences degrees.

College officials predict more than 5,000 additional community members, many low-income, would be served in the clinics while providing students with required clinical experience and generating revenue to offset operational costs.

Brynaert said the 14th spot on the MnSCU priority list was close to the cut-off point in recent bonding bills. But she’s hopeful for the project’s prospects, partly because it would put more health professionals into the workforce.

“It stands a good chance if you look at its actual job-creation potential,” she said.

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