A vision with different versions

MARSHALL – With Gov. Mark Dayton soon to release his list of Capital Investment recommendations for the 2014 session, residents of Marshall and the area have plenty of reason to pay attention.

While no one will know what the final numbers will be or where state policymakers and Dayton will agree to invest, the governor said last month he is considering a $975 million bill for public construction projects in Minnesota.

More than $2.4 billion in project requests have been made.

Supporters of two major projects in Marshall – the regional amateur sports complex and MERIT Center expansion – have been down this road before. And Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said this could very well be the year that all the time sunk into these projects and all the lobbying in St. Paul will finally pay off.

“This is the year,” Byrnes said. “There are a number of things that should make us optimistic about the prospects of Capital Investment funding for both the amateur sports facility complex and the MERIT Center. They’re great projects. They’re economic development projects, they’re well supported by the community as we saw in the referendum votes. The local share-to-state funding component is excellent – roughly three-to-one – so the bang for the buck with the state investment dollars is outstanding. And we have excellent bipartisan support. Our local legislators are supportive of these projects, and we expect that the governor’s office would be supportive of this.”

The question looms, however: What if the state support, once again, isn’t there? The city has gone to the well for the sports complex a number of times in past years and has been denied its request for funding each time.

“Quite honestly, if it doesn’t happen now, we’ll just have to figure out Plan B,” said Byrnes.

“Plan B,” Byrnes said, would mean a reduction in the capacity of both of the projects, which he admits would lessen the attractiveness to people from outside Minnesota and could diminish the sports complex’s regional significance.

“It would still serve the local needs, but as far as the number of participants who would be coming from South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska for either safety training at the MERIT Center or for events at the sports complex, it could be reduced. I’m not serious about Plan B,” he said.

The city is requesting $4.28 million for the regional amateur sports complex (the initial budget estimates of $12.9 million for the sports center included the requested state bonding money) and $2.5 million for the MERIT Center to help build a driving track and classrooms that could be used for both emergency response and civilian training. The MERIT Center secured $1 million in bonding in 2010.

The result of not receiving bonding dollars this year would mean scaling back from two sheets of ice to one. Also, some components of the ballfields like the concession stands would also be sacrificed.

Marshall City Administrator Ben Martig said a presentation was put forth in the design and development stage in 2013 that defined how the projects would be scaled back if they didn’t receive state bonding dollars. The MERIT Center, he said, would still go on, but it would lose a portion of the proposed driving track. With the sports complex, Martig said going to one sheet of ice could impact the revenue generated by the new building.

Because city leaders don’t know how much, if any, state money will come this year, Martig said predicting exactly what would happen to the sports complex if it didn’t receive the full $4.28 million at this point is more of a “guessing game” than an exact science. The final product all depends on the amount Marshall receives, he said, and that won’t be known for months.

“There are all different kinds of scenarios – what if we get $2 million instead of $4.28 million, what if we get $3 million?” Martig said. “To go through every possible scenario would get mind-numbing.”

Byrnes said if funding from the state doesn’t come in 2014, project organizers would “have to go back to the engineers and architects and work with what we have.”

But Byrnes doesn’t want to travel too far down that road. He said he’s more optimistic than ever the projects will be included in the bonding bill this year, given the support they’ve garnered locally with a successful local sales tax referendum in November 2012 and the fact that the amateur sports complex is considered to be the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s No. 1 priority. The local .5 percent sales tax went into effect April 1, 2013; the lodging tax took effect on June 1, and the 1.5 percent food and beverage tax on July 1.

The project also made significant gains during the last legislative session when the House’s Capital Investment bill included the sports complex as part of an $858 million bill.

“(District 16) Senator (Gary) Dahms and (District 16A) Representative (Chris) Swedzinski both indicated they were optimistic the sports center would receive funding, and both gave the example that because it was included on the House’s final bill (last session) they felt pretty good about it,” Martig said. “Since we take our lead from our legislators when it comes to the political process, because they’re optimistic, I’m optimistic.”

The approved construction borrowing package that came out of the 2013 legislative session – a non-bonding year – came in just shy of $177 million, most of which was for renovations at the state Capitol. None of the smaller economic development projects around the state made the final cut.

Martig said ideally, Marshall’s projects will be included in the governor’s list of recommendations, as well as the Senate’s and House’s – “which pretty much means you’re in,” he said. “Two of the three is good, one of the three, you still have a shot but you gotta work at it. With Republican representation in Marshall and a Democrat governor in office, it’s always an uphill battle to be included on the governor’s list.”