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Event Center trimmed: Facility would include neither second sheet of ice nor convention center

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What can you buy with $50 million? Not as much as you might think.

The Bemidji City Council Wednesday night voted to move forward with plans to construct a multiuse regional events center, sans a convention center and a second sheet of practice ice for Bemidji State University hockey.

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While the plan does not detail a specific blueprint of the building - design plans still need to be developed - it includes an events center that also would serve as a hockey facility and 10,000 square feet of conference space. A second sheet of ice for hockey practice and a convention center possibly could be added later if more funding is available.

"Our task was to deliver what $50 million can do - and I believe we've done that," said City Manager John Chattin.

Approved in the same motion Thursday was securing a facilitator for the project. Councilor Ron Johnson said someone needs to bring the city and BSU together.

"I think we can get there by getting people in the same room," he said.

The vote passed unanimously, 5-0, as Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilor Roger Hellquist did not attend the meeting.

The vote Wednesday night does not guarantee the construction of the facility. City staff needed specifics to prepare a request for funding from the state, which will be considered as part of the bonding bill during the 2008 legislative session. The council on June 4 voted to support a $50 million events center and to request $25 million in state funding for the project.

The vote last night specified that the new facility will be a multipurpose events center, not a convention center. BSU hockey still would be the anchor tenant. The events center would seat about 3,500 people.

"Suites could be built at a later date if space is provided," said Paul Richards, who works with the design team of Widseth Smith Nolting and Leo A. Daly.

Richards said there would be room for about 4,000 spectators if the suites are constructed.

Richards said the facility would clearly be an "events center" and not a "convention center."

"It would be a misnomer to define it as that," he said.

Some councilors had concerns about the availability of the events center for non-hockey-related activities if the practice sheet of ice was not provided. During the hockey season BSU hockey would have priority for using the facility.

BSU Athletic Director Rick Goeb said the hockey team begins practice in September and plays through the end of March.

"This is exactly what John Glas is," Johnson said, referring to the John S. Glas Fieldhouse on the BSU campus. Both BSU hockey teams currently practice and compete in the fieldhouse.

Johnson alluded to a scenario in which the BSU hockey teams could continue to practice at John Glas and compete at the proposed events center. His reasoning was that the events center then would be more available for hosting community events.

But Goeb said it would be a disadvantage for a team to practice in a different location from where it plays games.

"You can't just show up on game day and play," he said.

Goeb said the hockey team also plays on the road and occasionally is gone for a week or so at a time, such as over semester break.

"There would be a lot of opportunities while we're on the road to have events," he said.

It would still take time to remove the ice for any kind of event, Johnson said.

Utilizing a floor to cover the ice also was discussed, although Richards said it would increase the estimated cost for fixtures and furniture.

Councilor Barb Meuers asked if BSU now was officially making a statement that the university is going to be involved in the project.

Chattin replied that he had asked BSU officials what the minimum requirements would be to have BSU be the facility's anchor tenant.

"This is what we came up with," he said.

Chattin also said it is BSU's involvement that qualifies the project for state funding.

"If BSU is not involved, there is no bonding bill," he said, explaining that the reason the city has an opportunity to be considered for funds from the state is that it has the support of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

If the city loses the support of MnSCU, Chattin said, it also loses the support of key leadership within the Legislature.

Councilor Jerry Downs suggested that the council scrap the entire plan.

"Public confidence is wavering," he said, saying that the council should "wait a couple of years" on the project.

Richards began the meeting by detailing the proposed facility's financial situation. He said there are nearly $23 million in costs unrelated to the construction of the actual building. These include more than $9 million for risk management (such as inflation and a contingency fund for construction), $4.5 million for site acquisition and preparation, $2.5 million for site improvement (utilities, streets, landscaping, etc.), $1 million for fixtures, furniture and equipment, and $5.6 million for project design and administration (fees, permits, inspections, etc.).

With $22,876,000 in non-building costs, that left just over $27 million for the actual building. At $200 per square foot - the going rate for similar projects - the actual building would cap out at 135,620 square feet.

During Thursday's meeting, the council rejected a previous motion to approve a $59 million facility that would include convention space.

The motion, made by Councilor Onen Markeson, failed 3-2 as he and Johnson supported it. Meuers, Erickson and Downs voted against the motion.

Richards said the council on June 4 had to make a decision between a $50 million and $60 million facility without really knowing what the differences would be.

"You didn't know what you got with $50 million," he said. "It's a shame."

Regarding the current plan, Johnson said the city gave up a lot of what it was seeking while BSU "sacrificed nothing."

But Erickson said the hockey component is what makes the facility regional. She said there still are no answers regarding whether or not BSU hockey will be admitted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association if the facility is completed.

Erickson described a Catch-22 of sorts. The WCHA won't consider BSU for admittance without a facility; yet the facility is financially questionable without BSU's admittance into the WCHA.

"The project hinges on BSU hockey's future," she said.

Many questions remain about the project, including its financial feasibility. Wayzata-based Conventions, Sports and Leisure International prepared a feasibility study last year; however, the project has now changed.

Councilors last night supported having CSL conduct another feasibility study that would examine the specific plan the City Council is now supporting.

"The situation has changed so much, I would certainly advocate for a second study," said Councilor Nancy Erickson. "We need to re-evaluate."

The financial plan also took into account several assumptions.

They included:

-- That the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will have funds, such as grants, available for soil remediation. "We think it is prudent to plan on that," Richards said.

-- No relocation costs would be needed.

-- On-site parking for 700 cars would be sufficient.

-- Fixture costs could be reduced from $3 million to $1 million.

-- The scoreboard and signage would be funded by outside sources. Richards said similar facilities have found funding for the scoreboard through marketing and advertising.

-- Any art for the facility would be donated.

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