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'Don't be afraid to be great': Attorney describes successful sports facilities

With about 40 pairs of eyes looking for his views on the proposed Bemidji events center, attorney Brian Schoenborn made his opinion clear.

"I believe you can build a first-class building that is a shining light to the country right here -- and do it reasonably priced," said Schoenborn, a St. Cloud attorney with Leonard, Street and Deinard, which he said is the leading sports law firm in a five-state region.

Schoenborn was invited to Bemidji by the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, which is acting as the project coordinator on the events center. Schoenborn co-owns two United States Hockey League teams and has worked on several similar projects.

The Bemidji City Council has voted in support of a $50 million facility. One-half of the funding for the project would come from the city's half-cent sales tax. If approved by the state Legislature, the remaining $25 million would come from the state. While Bemidji State University has not yet committed to the project, the city hopes that BSU hockey would be the anchor tenant.

Schoenborn, during the 7:30 a.m. meeting for businesses, opened with a brief history of St. Cloud and its National Hockey Center on the St. Cloud State University campus. He said St. Cloud in the mid- to late-1980s was similar to Bemidji.

When he was growing up, he said, St. Cloud "was a basketball town" and hockey wasn't of major interest to the community. But that changed when the university sought to anchor the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, rather than in Blaine near the National Sports Center.

"It wasn't until St. Cloud State (hockey) went Division I that the hockey world kind of changed," Schoenborn said. "It really came down to the facility."

He said he sees a lot of parallels between St. Cloud and Bemidji.

The two USHL teams that Schoenborn co-owns are in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Des Moines, Iowa. When asked if either of the facilities they play in have received funding from the government, he said the Sioux Falls team plays in a facility owned by the city and the Des Moines team owns its own building. Both facilities, he said, generate revenue.

"I've never worked with a facility where it has run at a loss," Schoenborn said.

In Bemidji, he said the potential financial support from the Legislature and the city's dedicated sales tax especially makes the project more financially feasible.

"That turns this into a less risky scenario," he said.

In addition to hockey games, Schoenborn said the centers host concerts, graduations and other events.

However, he also cautioned that more revenue is not necessarily generated each time the facility is open. It costs money to turn on the lights, operate and clean up each time the center is open.

"If you want a building that is open 250 days a year -- that's crazy," he said. "Maybe you want to be open 100 days."

Successful facilities, he said, must have a successful partnership between the anchor tenant and the community.

"It has to be win-win," he said.

Otherwise, if the community wins but the team doesn't, a "Vikings scenario" is created in which the team threatens to leave the arena, and possibly the community.

If the team wins but the community does not, he said the facility will deteriorate.

"If the community is suffering, the building goes south," he said.

Schoenborn said he believes a partnership with BSU hockey would serve the city and the university well.

"I'll sit and tell you today that BSU has a great tradition," he said. "I don't see the investment in its infrastructure going anywhere but up."

When someone asked how the facilities he has worked with have stimulated other development, Schoenborn said there are two ways development typically occurs around a sports arena.

First, there is the "Home Depot model," in which someone buys a large chunk of land and builds on one piece of it knowing that remaining property will only increase in value, he said. The remaining parcels are then sold to potential developers.

The other way, he said, is to place an arena in an already developed area. Existing facilities or businesses are then redeveloped.

St. Cloud, he said, never considered additional development. Instead of businesses, he said, apartments have sprung up around the National Hockey Center.

In regards to his teams, he said the Des Moines team plays in an arena that was constructed in the 1960s. His Sioux Falls hockey team plays in a basketball facility that was built in the 1960s and was renovated to accommodate hockey. That team now is in the process of building a new facility using the "Home Depot model," he said.

In closing, Schoenborn said "the stars are aligned" for Bemidji. He said the opportunity to build a successful center may not again present itself and told those in attendance: "Don't be afraid to be great."

"Five years from now we can look back and smile, and say, 'We did something great,'" Schoenborn said.