House committee reviews events center plan
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, acknowledged on Tuesday that the lack of a regional events center in northern Minnesota could work to Bemidji's advantage.
Hausman, the chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, was in town along with other committee members as they reviewed Bemidji's regional events center proposal. Legislators heard a summary of the project at City Hall and then walked to the Irvine Street bridge overlooking the proposed site of the facility.
"We're responsive to the idea that there is not a regional events center in such a broad area," Hausman said.
Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann and Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, presented to legislators the plans for a $50 million events center/arena that would house Bemidji State University hockey.
While the city would pay half of the project's cost through an extension of the city's half-cent sales tax, it also has requested that the Legislature allocate $25 million in funding through the 2008 bonding bill.
The House Capital Investment Committee stopped in Bemidji during a three-day tour of northern Minnesota to review bonding requests.
While championing and describing the project, Lehmann and Moe attempted to present an honest outline of its status.
There still is no agreement with BSU, Moe said, adding that the university is facing some financial challenges.
He asked legislators to consider the project with an open mind.
"Hopefully, we'll get our ducks in a row before the legislative session starts," he said.
But if questions surrounding the proposed facility are not answered by next year, Moe would not ask that it be included in the bonding bill, he said.
Following the presentation, Hausman said the unanswered questions would not likely play a role in the bonding decision if they are addressed before 2008.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities often receives high priority on bonding requests, she said. If a partnership with BSU is cemented, that would only help the proposal, she said.
"What we heard would not necessarily make us opposed," she said. "We just want the questions answered."
In addition to the challenges facing the project, Moe also presented reasons for its necessity, including that there is no similar facility in the immediate area. The closest center to the north is in Winnipeg, and to the south is in St. Cloud, he said.
"There is a large, underserved area in need of a regional events center," he said.
Lehmann explained the city's desire to first construct the events center/arena as phase one and then add on a convention center and a second sheet of ice as phases two and three.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, asked questions relating to the facility's finances. Would the sales-tax extension pay for the entirety of the city's portion of the cost? Would the university strictly pay rent?
Lehmann said the city will work with BSU regarding a rental agreement, and the sales tax would cover the city's portion for funding.
Juhnke then asked how long the city of Bemidji is planning to take to retire its debt for the project.
The city now is estimating on 30 years, Lehmann said.
"Hopefully it's less than that," he said.
Juhnke said 30 years is a long time.
"But we'll have a building that is here a lot longer than that," Lehmann said.
When asked if the city now owns all of the land for the project, Lehmann said the city does control most of the land required for the first phase of construction. The city would have to acquire the Cenex property near the railroad corridor, but property owners are willing sellers, he said.
"The city owns the lion's share of the property," he said.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, asked where BSU hockey teams currently compete. Lehmann replied that they now play at the John Glas Fieldhouse on campus.
"Arguably, (the facilities) are woefully inadequate," Lehmann said, explaining that the seating arrangements are poor and there are problems with the sound system.
"Robbinsdale Cooper has a better hockey facility," Moe quipped to Carlson.
Within Carlson's district is the Robbinsdale School District, which contains Armstrong and Cooper high schools. Both schools compete in hockey at the New Hope Ice Arena, which has two sheets of ice and seating for 2,200 and 800 respectively.
Carlson also asked if the sheet of ice would be constructed below ground, and Lehmann replied that it would be.
"You'll save a ton on utilities," Carlson said.
While entering City Hall, many legislators were presented with printed information from a group of citizens opposed to the events center project.
Hausman addressed the concerns raised in the literature by saying that the project's decision-makers are the local City Council and BSU.
"It is a local debate and a local decision," she said.