sub-Proposed hockey rink.jpg (copy)

The cost of this two-rink hockey arena at Highway 14 and Victory Drive, originally set at $18 million when proposed in May by the Mankato Area Hockey Association, will actually be $24.6 million, according to a recent feasibility study conducted by the city. The arena is one of several sports and recreation facilities vying for a portion of Mankato's local sales tax revenue. Rendering courtesy of MAHA

MANKATO — An hourlong summary by Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges came down to one fact: You can’t buy $35 million of sports and recreation facilities with $25 million in revenue.

So city leaders will need to pass judgment on which projects — building a new hockey rink, improving youth softball and baseball parks, renovating and expanding the Tourtellotte Park pool, supporting more requested improvements to Franklin Rogers Ballpark — should rise to the top.

“Obviously decisions like this can’t be taken without a lot of study,” Hentges said Monday after summarizing the cost of requested facilities and the available revenue from the half-percent local sales tax. “These are large-scale financial decisions that are going to have to be moved to dedicated work sessions to eventually prioritize and develop a schedule.”

The City Council agreed to hold work sessions on Jan. 6 and Jan. 27 to analyze, discuss and begin the process of ultimately picking projects to finance in the near term while assigning others to a waiting list.

New and improved sports facilities were a driving force behind a campaign in 2016 to pass a referendum extending the sales tax, previously set to expire in 2022, to 2038. But other projects ranging from water-quality initiatives to homeless shelters to airport improvements are also eligible to be funded with the sales tax over the next 19 years, and short-term revenue is even more constrained because a portion of the sales tax is being used to pay off debt on the civic center complex and other already-completed projects.

An analysis by the city’s bond counsel found that $10 million to $15 million in bonds could be issued in 2021 but only if more routine city projects are rescheduled and the local food and beverage tax — currently at a half-percent — is increased to 1%. Another $10 million in bonds could be issued in 2028.

Already, $34 million to $36 million in requested projects have been proposed, and backers of most of those would balk at waiting another eight years for construction to start. Although some of the projects might be financed partly with private fundraising or other outside funding sources, there are clearly more desires than dollars.

Hentges delivered his summary a bit early — a series of feasibility studies, which are required by council policy for sales-tax financed projects exceeding $750,000 in cost, are completed but still being compiled by city staff and weren’t available for the council to review. But with Monday’s meeting the last of 2019 before a holiday break, Hentges wanted to get council members thinking about the issues and get work sessions scheduled for January.

The feasibility studies, which were conducted partly by outside consultants, explored proposed improvements at three existing Mankato parks and at a requested new hockey facility.

By far the largest is the two-rink arena sought by the Mankato Area Hockey Association at the intersection of North Victory Drive and Highway 14. And the hockey arena feasibility study brought some bad news for MAHA, which estimated the cost of the project at just under $18 million last May and pledged to privately raise just over half of the funding. The organization later provided a revised cost estimate raising the price tag to $21.5 million. The feasibility study, however, used an outside construction firm to calculate the cost of the proposed arena and came up with $24.6 million.

“The proposal is beyond our ability to borrow unless we spend it all on hockey and nothing else,” Hentges said in an interview on Tuesday.

In addition, MAHA’s preferred site is currently a farm field, so additional municipal or fundraising dollars would be needed to provide streets and utilities to the arena.

The council’s sales-tax policy also requires that a budget be developed to cover ongoing operating costs of any new facility, and Hentges said the feasibility study delves into whether rental revenue by youth hockey teams and other users will generate enough revenue to cover the additional operational expenses of a new rink.

Because the MAHA proposal is looking less likely, the study includes lower-cost alternatives for adding more ice rinks elsewhere in the city.

The second-largest project is a major overhaul and expansion of Thomas Fields to create an athletic complex dedicated to youth softball. The $6.8 million base plan would create a quartet of softball fields in a wheel-pattern similar to North Mankato’s Caswell Park plus a “championship” field with artificial turf in an area between the four fields and East High School. The project would bring renovated restrooms, walking paths and $172,000 in landscaping, as well.

The city aims to make Thomas Park the equal of Community Athletic Fields, the youth baseball complex just south of Rosa Parks Elementary School. That six-field complex would receive a smaller $1.6 million upgrade under another feasibility study, adding parking, a pair of additional youth baseball fields and a neighborhood park with a playground.

Another study examines repairs and new amenities at the municipal pool at Tourtellotte Park. The base construction plan totals $4.85 million and would renovate the historic bathhouse and add a zero-depth-entry pool, a splash pad and some enhancements to the pool deck. The plan also includes some optional add-ons at the pool and in the surrounding park such as a water slide, added restrooms and concessions, more parking stalls, six more pickleball courts and an expanded playground, which would push the cost up nearly $1.6 million.

Finally, Franklin Rogers Park — the city’s premier baseball field and the home of the Mankato MoonDogs — could be further upgraded following a $4.5 million renovation in 2018. About two-thirds of the earlier renovation was financed by the city with the rest covered by the MoonDogs.

The Northwoods League team is now looking to complete the final phase of the ballpark renovation in 2020 in time for the league All-Star Game. That final phase, which was previously expected to be five or more years in the future, would include $887,000 for parking lot improvements and the construction of a plaza with new outfield seating beyond the right-field fence.

Hentges said Tuesday that the decision facing the council may go beyond determining which projects get built first. Some may be deemed too expensive to do at all.

“Are some ‘needs’ going to become simply ‘wants’?” Hentges said. “That’s really the test for the council.”

Council President Mike Laven, in making a motion to hold the work sessions in January, said it’s time for the council to get a good grasp of the overall financial challenge before spending late winter and spring examining the individual projects in depth.

“So we can get, hypothetically, into June and have an idea where we’re headed,” Laven said.

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