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City Council, Quistgaard team up to discuss events center

Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard on Wednesday was unable to present a signed lease, but he did agree to begin negotiations with the city.

Quistgaard met with the Bemidji City Council during a work session Wednesday night to discuss the potential of having BSU hockey serve as the anchor tenant of the proposed events center. About 40 other community members and BSU officials attended the meeting.

While Quistgaard was unable to offer a signed lease agreement or dictate the specifics of what BSU's needs would be for such a lease, his promise to begin conversations will at least ease the pressure on the Bemidji City Council, which has recently struggled with the prospect of moving forward with the events center without any commitment from BSU.

The City Council is considering a $50 million events center/arena in which BSU hockey would serve as the anchor tenant. Half of the funding would come from the city's half-cent sales tax; $22 million - which when combined with the $3 million allocated by the state last year equals the other half - would come from legislative bonding, if approved in 2008.

During a 45-minute conversation with the City Council, Quistgaard said the university cannot fully commit its hockey teams to the events center until more information is available.

BSU is facing several uncertainties, Quistgaard said. First, the athletic department hopes to admit its men's hockey program into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but the WCHA currently has a moratorium in place on expansion. Secondly, Quistgaard wants to ensure the financial viability of the Division I men's hockey program and has asked that the program raise $500,000 a year for each of the next five years, or $2.5 million total.

But Quistgaard also said the university is working "extremely hard" toward being able to be the anchor tenant of the events center.

The university would be willing to meet with a committee from the City Council to begin working toward a potential lease agreement, he said.

Three members of the City Council - Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Nancy Erickson and Jerry Downs - will represent the city. BSU still must decide which staff members would represent the university, Quistgaard said following the meeting.

In an opening statement, Quistgaard said the university was committed to its hockey program and had no intention of following Wayne State University, which announced last week that it would discontinue its Division I men's hockey program following this hockey season.

"We do not intend to take that path," Quistgaard said.

Instead, last February, he presented an approach that would ensure the future of BSU hockey, Quistgaard said.

First, BSU must get its men's hockey program admitted into the WCHA, he said, explaining that the WCHA is the most economically viable conference in the nation.

Secondly, the program must raise $500,000 for each of the next five years, or $2.5 million total.

Thirdly, BSU hockey would need a new home, he said. The team currently competes at the John S. Glas Fieldhouse on campus.

The potential for an events center/arena was "very intriguing" when it first was presented, Quistgaard said, and BSU still wants to work with the city to have BSU hockey be its anchor tenant.

He said BSU will better understand where it is at by the end of the year.

Lehmann, however, stressed that no matter what BSU's ultimate decision is in December, a lease must already have been agreed upon.

"We have to be ready with an agreement," he said.

Quistgaard said history shows that BSU is willing to work with the city.

"I'm confident we can figure this out," he said.

Erickson asked how much money has been raised to date toward the fundraising goal.

Quistgaard said $2.5 million must be raised in the next five years, and plans to have signed agreements in place toward the first $500,000 by the end of this year.

Bob Peters, former coach of the Beavers, said the alumni have all been contacted and $100,000 has already been raised. The university also is working toward selling suites in the proposed events center/arena.

Erickson also was concerned about how long a lease with BSU might last. The City Council and BSU just entered into a lease agreement for the Outdoor Program Center at Diamond Point Park, which must be renewed every five years, she said.

The council had expected a long-term lease, Erickson said, adding that she was told that Minnesota State College and Universities only allows leases to last up to five years at a time.

Bill Maki, the chief financial officer for BSU, said the two leases could not be compared. The university and city staff wanted to fast-track the lease for the OPC and did not want the lease to have to go in front of the MnSCU board for approval, and leases that last longer than five years would need that review, he explained.

A potential lease for the events center, he said, would be presented to the board for approval.

"This lease we would treat much differently than we did Diamond Point,' he said.

Councilor Ron Johnson said he did not believe the university or city could hold off on making the bonding request. Since the Legislature typically approves bonding bills every two year, he said the Bemidji events center would probably not again be discussed until 2010.

And Gov. Tim Pawlenty - who has supported the events center in the past - by then could be vice president of the United States, he said.

Also, if the council thinks it can't afford the facility now, it would only increase in cost in another few years, Johnson said.

"I think it would be very dangerous to put this off two years," he said, adding that it could prompt the demise of the BSU hockey program.

Peters said he is in contact daily with hockey officials throughout the country, including conference commissioners and athletic directors.

No one wants to see BSU hockey cease to exist, he said.

BSU is a winning program, as it has had 13 national championships and 20 conference championships, Peters said.

"They want us to be alive and vibrant," he said.

Johnson asked Quistgaard if he really believed that the university would know by the end of the year whether the WCHA would consider the Beavers for admittance.

The WCHA is discussing its own future and considering different possibilities regarding its membership, Quistgaard. It is possible that BSU will consider some short-term options, but it remains committed to getting into the WCHA, he said.

"I don't want to give up on that goal," he said.

Peters added that one-third of BSU's schedule is currently dedicated to competition with WCHA teams.