By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
Mankato lawmakers' previous six attempts to get state help in upgrading the city's downtown civic center have been even less successful during that stretch than the Minnesota State University hockey team that calls the arena home.
The Mavericks hockey team has finished second or third from the bottom in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in all but one of the past six seasons. Local lawmakers are 0-6 at the Capitol in seeking millions of dollars in state bonding for the Verizon Wireless Center.
But it's a new season for the Mavericks and for Sen. Kathy Sheran, who presented her bill for the first time Wednesday to get the state to pay $14.5 million to improve the hockey facilities and to add a new auditorium.
"This is my seventh year (in the Legislature)," Sheran told the Senate's economic development finance panel. "... And this is my seventh year coming before you with a request for money through the bonding bill for upgrades and improvements to this facility."
Sheran reminded lawmakers that Mankato built its civic center with a local sales tax and no state assistance, reminded them that the arena was built to help a state university find a home for its Division I hockey aspirations, reminded them that virtually every civic center and sports facility in the state -- from the impending Vikings stadium to the new stadium for the minor league St. Paul Saints -- has been given state dollars.
"Mankato is the only facility that has never received support from the state," she said.
"You left out Duluth and Bemidji and Crookston," said Sen. David Tomassoni, chairman of the Finance Committee's economic development division. "I think I voted for all of 'em."
Even without his history of supporting facility upgrades elsewhere, Tomassoni might be inclined to offer a sympathetic ear to the Mankato plan. The Chisholm native played hockey for the WCHA's Denver Pioneers prior to a 16-year career as a professional hockey player in Italy.
And hockey is at the center of MSU's plans. The state dollars, along with a $14.5 million match from Mankato, would replace aging parts of the arena, improve locker rooms and other facilities for the Mavericks men's and women's teams and add an auditorium on the southeast side of the existing civic center.
The auditorium space would be needed to handle conventions and other meetings, because MSU wants to move the women's games to the arena from All Seasons Arena and move both teams' practices downtown. The increased use of the arena for hockey would bump some other events to the auditorium.
When Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges stepped up to provide testimony and answer questions, one of Tomassoni's first queries was about how the Mavericks were doing. Hentges reported that they were doing much better this season -- near the top of the league, playing a big series against North Dakota this weekend and likely to win home-ice advantage in the upcoming WCHA playoffs.
Whether Mankato has similar success in turning around its Capitol losing streak will be determined in the next two months. A big clue should come next week, however, with Gov. Mark Dayton's revised budget plan.
Dayton -- unlike predecessor Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed Mankato civic center funds multiple times -- strongly supports civic center upgrades proposed by Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. In December, Dayton said he planned to pursue a large bonding bill this legislative session to finance construction around the state and pledged that the civic centers would be included.
Dayton's only caveat in December was that he needed to wait until the state's new budget forecast was released in February in case the state's $1.1 billion budget shortfall worsened. In fact, the forecast predicts the amount of red ink will be nearly cut in half.
Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor's revised budget, which will be announced early next week, won't include his specific bonding preferences. But it will indicate the total size of the bonding bill Dayton will seek, with specific project suggestions coming later in the month.
Based on Dayton's December comments, the least he will propose is to finance the continuation of the renovation of the crumbling Capitol building -- something that may require $100 million or more in 2013 -- with civic centers and other non-emergency statewide projects waiting until 2014. But Dayton said he strongly prefers a much larger bill be approved this year to take advantage of low interest rates on bonds and to make up for a relatively small construction bill approved by the then-Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012.
Tomassoni didn't take a vote on the Mankato plan Wednesday, saying decisions about all bonding requests will be made by the committee at a later date.
He also had a parting comment for the Mankatoans that appeared to be related to the impending competition on the ice -- but could have been a reference to the contest under the Capitol dome for a spot in the bonding bill.
"Good luck in the playoffs," he said.