Wait ’til next year for local projects

MARSHALL – Time to dust off the drawing board for the regional amateur sports complex and MERIT Center.

The Minnesota Legislature adjourned for the year at midnight Monday, and while it did pass a bonding bill, the final amount of the bill paled in comparison to the figures that were initially presented.

The approved construction borrowing package came in just shy of $177 million (the House had proposed a $858 million bill). None of the smaller economic development projects around the state made the final cut.

“A lot of good projects all around the state didn’t get included, so we’re not alone,” Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said. “Of course, we’re disappointed the projects in southwest Minnesota and Marshall weren’t included.”

Most of that $177 million will go toward renovations at the state Capitol. Aside from the Capitol project is an $18.9 million award for a new Minneapolis Veterans Home building that will garner a substantial federal match. There is also $20 million for flood mitigation projects.

This was the city of Marshall’s third attempt to secure state bonding dollars for the $12.9 million sports complex. And even though it came up empty, as Byrnes put it, it wasn’t for a lack of local effort.

“I really think the community and region did everything we could,” Byrnes said. “We provided testimony at all the hearings, made many contacts, there were hundreds of emails to our legislators in this last week from private citizens in the community who cared about these projects. And obviously we had overwhelming support in the vote last November.”

“I think Marshall is very well-poised for next year,” District 16A Republican Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said. “I’ve been working with colleagues on my side of the aisle, and we’re going to be moving forward to take care of the necessary projects in our districts. At the end of the day Marshall showed great effort in showing all the work they’ve done, passing the referendum and showing the Legislature and leaders that these projects are ready for primetime.”

Marshall voters in November approved a .5 percent general sales tax and a 1.5 percent food, beverage and lodging tax – a fact that while it wasn’t enough to put Marshall’s projects over the hump, it did send a message to St. Paul that local support is in place. The measures for the MERIT Center and sports complex passed by 60 and 62 percent, respectively. The two local sales taxes will help pay for capital and operating expenses for a training track at the MERIT Center and all or part of the costs of the new facilities at the sports complex.

“These projects really fit with everything that should be funded in a bonding bill,” said Byrnes. “Job creation, economic development, a two-to-one local match to every state dollar that would be invested.”

Local officials have stressed the sports complex project will go on in Marshall, but, Byrnes said Tuesday, there might be some adjustments to the project itself and the timeline. One extreme option, he said, would be to put the sports complex project on hold for a year. Byrnes said that certainly isn’t the best option, but one that will be at least explored.

“Is there a possibility of doing some phased development on both of the projects, or will the projects be scaled back?” he said. “The downside of scaling the projects back is the purpose of the projects as far as economic development would be diminished. These are things the MERIT Center commission and the Southwest Amateur Sports Commission will need to explore over the next several weeks.”

The sports complex project, which was classified this session as the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s top priority, did make some headway this year when a House version of the Capital Investment bill included the $4 million for the sports complex as part of the massive $858 million capital investment bill.

Next year will be a bonding year in the Legislature, but the 2014 session will be considerably shorter than this year’s, as legislators will convene Feb. 25 as opposed to this year when the session began Jan. 8. Swedzinski said in the meantime, he plans to use this summer to build up support for the sports complex heading into next year’s session.

“A few people (in the Legislature) have probably seen it; the governor’s been out to Marshall before, I think (Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice) Hausman has been there – it’s just the act of getting some of the new members out there to the area, so when the bill does come forward next year they understand the importance it has for Marshall and the region,” he said.

Stan Brewers, chairman of the MERIT Center Committee, went into the session with tempered optimism since this wasn’t a traditional bonding year. The MERIT Center sought $2.5 million (it has already secured $1 million from previous bonding), and Brewers said he’s prepared to keep pushing the MERIT Center project at the Capitol in the future.

“We weren’t really expecting too much since it wasn’t a bonding year – if something good would’ve happened, great, but we’ll continue to go to St. Paul and push for it,” he said. “We’ll keep going forward with our architect and get the pre-designs done and get ready for when the big day comes.”

Brewers said even getting funding for one of the two projects this year would’ve been a major boost for the city.

“It would’ve been great if either one of the projects got some money – that would’ve been huge for the city, because now we’re going back there for two projects in the same town, that’s a little more difficult,” Brewers said. “If we could’ve got one out of the way it would’ve been awesome.”

The last time the state bonded in a true bonding year (2012), the total amount was $496 million.