Sports complex makes Dayton cut; MERIT Center snubbed

MARSHALL – While there was never any doubt the city of Marshall would proceed with building what local officials called a regionally-attractive amateur sports complex since passage of a local sales tax referendum in 2012, questions lingered about what amenities the new complex would offer.

The city took a big step in answering those questions Wednesday when it learned the project has been included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s $986 million Capital Investment package for the 2014 session.

“It’s great news as far as the sports project goes,” Marshall City Administrator Ben Martig said. “It’s been a long time coming. The support of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, who had it as their No. 1 priority, is demonstrated by the fact that this was the only project in their group that got funded.”

The city’s $2.5 million request for expansion at the MERIT Center was left off Dayton’s list.

Making Dayton’s cut doesn’t guarantee the sports complex project will end up in the final bonding bill this year, as the House and Senate still have to put forth their versions, but it is a major step in the right direction for a project that historically has been mostly ignored in previous bonding bills. (The project was included in the House’s $858 million Capital Investment bill in the 2013 session).

“It’s an important step, but not the final step,” Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said. “We’ll continue to work with the Legislature in the House and Senate; all three need to come together, and that probably won’t happen until the end of the session in May. There’s a road ahead, but the fact that this project is in the governor’s recommendation is very good news for the city and the region.”

“We’re very excited about getting included in the governor’s presentation,” said Roger Madison, co-chairman of the Southwest Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission. “I certainly wouldn’t say we’re ready to do victory laps, but I think we’re in the final lap with the lead.”

The city requested $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.

If the sports complex project doesn’t receive bonding dollars, only one sheet of ice, not two, will be included in the final product. The proposed ballfields will also be affected. MERIT Center expansion would still happen regardless of what happens with this year’s bonding bill, but it would lose a portion of the proposed driving track.

Local support for the sports complex became clear in the last election. The facility will be constructed with a .5 percent general sales tax, and operating costs will be funding through a 1.5 percent lodging and food/beverage tax, which both went into effect in 2013. Both the sports complex and MERIT Center will receive funding through the taxes. In the 2012 election, Marshall residents voted yes on both ballot questions – 60 percent in favor for the MERIT Center and 62 percent in favor for the sports complex.

Madison said the group behind yet another effort to secure bonding dollars for the sports complex had its highest expectations compared to previous attempts and said “seeing the level of expectation match up with results is very gratifying.”

Marshall City Administrator Ben Martig called Wednesday a bittersweet day since the MERIT Center project didn’t make Dayton’s cut.

“We know the MERIT Center project is very important to our community and has regional and statewide significance, not only from a public safety standpoint, but workforce development training and meeting the needs for southwest Minnesota with the opportunities provided, particularly from the classroom,” said Martig.

“I think it is and it isn’t a surprise,” said Stan Brewers, chairman of the MERIT Center Committee. “If we got on the governor’s list it would be a great start, but the two most important ones are the House and Senate. We’d love to be on the governor’s list, but it didn’t happen. We’ll continue to stay optimistic and keep fighting for it.”

Brewers said past meetings with Senate and House members regarding the MERIT Center were positive. While disappointed with Wednesday’s news, he was glad to see one of Marshall’s two requests met.

“We’ve both been working at this for a long time,” Brewers said. “The sports complex has the Minnesota Sports Commission on their side, and they’re a very large lobbying group, and good for them. With my group, I’ve always said that even if we don’t get the money, hopefully one of us does; they will both help the city of Marshall.”

Brewers indicated the MERIT Center group, which testified in front of the Minnesota Department of Transportation last year, will be doing the same thing again in 2014.

“All you can do is hope,” he said. “When we go back up there, maybe we’re just going to have to plead our case a little bit harder.”

Byrnes said he would like to see the Minnesota Department of Public Safety throw more support behind the MERIT Center project, much like the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission has done for the sports complex.

Dayton’s bonding recommendations also include more than $3.4 million for renovations at the Canby and Jackson Minnesota West Community and Technical College campuses. The Canby project will convert a main campus building from traditional steam heat to a geothermal system.

Dayton is also recommending $40 million for higher education asset preservation and repair (HEAPR) across all MnSCU campuses. MnSCU HEAPR projects will address mechanical, plumbing and electrical system needs, roof, window and building exterior repairs, and safety and code compliance projects.

Another $20 million would head toward the Lewis & Clark Joint Powers Board for Phase 1 of its water system project that will deliver water to Luverne by December 2015.