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BSU President Quistgaard asks for more time for events center deal; council says no

Jon Quistgaard stood before the Bemidji City Council and pleaded for two more weeks.

Saying that he was unable to commit Bemidji State University to the events center project until at least Jan. 15, BSU's president begged the council for more time.

The council denied his request. On a vote of 6-1, with Councilor Onen Markeson opposed, the City Council voted on Thursday to ask the Legislature for funding for a $50 million scaled-down events center that might have the ability to host BSU hockey games - but would neither serve as the "home" for BSU hockey nor feature as many amenities.

Without a home conference, Quistgaard said he has no assurance of the long-term viability of the hockey program and was unable to immediately commit to the events center.

"We're at a point of crisis, quick frankly," he said.

Quistgaard hopes that the hockey team will be admitted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which as recently as last spring denied BSU's request for entrance into the conference, citing a moratorium on expansion.

But, Quistgaard said, the WCHA now seems more receptive to BSU's plight and is allowing him to make a 30-minute presentation to the WCHA's board of directors on Jan. 13.

Quistgaard told the City Council that he would be able to firmly commit to the events center or formally withdraw from the project by Jan. 15, based on his reception at the WCHA meeting.

Quistgaard said he is not expecting a clear-cut decision from the WCHA.

"Hopefully ... I'll get some signal from them that says yes, you are able to take the next step," Quistgaard said, explaining that such indications could come from conversations with directors away from the meeting.

When asked by Mayor Richard Lehmann to speculate on the chance of gaining admittance, Quistgaard said, "I feel confident that we will be able to get into the WCHA."

But the majority of the council was unwilling to wait.

"We need to move forward with this," Lehmann said. "The community is waiting for us to get this going."

While the city of Bemidji officially applied to the Legislature for bonding funds this fall, it always was expected that the city later would submit details and plans for the events center - along with evidence that BSU hockey was committed to being the anchor tenant of the facility.

Those two pieces had originally been expected to be in hand by Dec. 15. The "deadline" was then pushed back to the end of December and most recently until the end of this week.

"The city cannot accept another delay ... We regret that BSU has been unable to commit to this project, but further delays will jeopardize the city's ability to have any project at all," Lehmann said, reading a prepared statement. "That alternative is not acceptable."

For Councilor Nancy Erickson, she said her vote was driven by the cost of the facility.

The Legislature has been asked to extend Bemidji's half-cent sales tax to generate $25 million in funding for the facility. The city also has requested that same amount to come from state bonding dollars.

The council has voted in favor of capping the events center at $50 million, yet the City Council has yet to be presented with plans that meet that figure, Erickson said.

"We swayed from that," Erickson said. "We needed to honor that council vote."

To develop the entire 130 acres along Lake Bemidji's south shore, which is proposed to contain the events center, the council was recently given figures showing the total cost of development to be nearly $100 million, which includes building and land costs and site improvements.

"One way or another, we need an events center scaled down to our $50 million commitment," said Councilor Roger Hellquist, who ultimately made the motion to support a scaled-down, $50 million facility.

The design team had planned three components of the events center, including a hockey arena/events center, convention center and a second sheet of ice that could double as addition convention center space.

With the council vote on Thursday, those plans will be scaled back. But, what exactly might be included is still unknown.

Councilor Ron Johnson said there was no need to design the facility during Thursday's meeting.

The important thing, he said, was that the council was returning to the original intent of the events center - to offer space for hosting events.

"We started this two years ago talking about an events center with some meeting space," he said.

But, as the idea for partnering with BSU arose, the facility "blossomed" into one that would house BSU hockey on a full-time basis, hosting its practices, two sheets of ice, offices and training facilities, Johnson said.

"I think if they can't make a decision ... let's spend the money on what we need in this town," he said. "We've been waiting and waiting and waiting and there's no commitment."

An events center could still be constructed for $50 million that would be able to host BSU hockey games and include WCHA-required suites, but not serve as a home for the hockey programs, Johnson said.

City Manager John Chattin disagreed. In an interview following the meeting, he said that he did not see how suites could be included in a $50 million facility.

The council's vote not only cut some amenities from the events center, but changed the entire focus of the project, he said.

"It will look very different," Chattin said.

During the meeting, Markeson asked for clarification about what a smaller facility would contain - even former BSU hockey coach Bob Peters asked if suites would be included - but the council majority did not define the components of the new events center plan.

"I wanted to wait two weeks and get the final decision," Markeson said following the meeting.

He wasn't alone. Councilor Jerry Downs earlier voiced support for waiting until after the Jan. 13 WCHA meeting.

"We have so much time in this so far," Downs said.

Councilor Barb Meuers said she was frustrated with the lack of commitment from BSU. Peters and other BSU officials have been telling community members that BSU is going to be admitted into the WCHA and her son-in-law in Duluth says he knows that BSU will be allowed admittance, Meuers said.

"I don't like this at all," she said.