Moving on, with or without bonding

MARSHALL – Plans for proposed expansion at the MERIT Center in Marshall received a huge boost in November 2012 when the voters of Marshall approved sales taxes that would go toward paying for elevating the training center’s status and expanding its reach.

Since that vote, however, MERIT Center supporters have been stonewalled in their efforts to secure state bonding to help add to the upgrade package. And while a major financial piece appears to be falling into place for Marshall’s other major project, the regional amateur sports center – the House and Senate, along with Gov. Mark Dayton, have each recommended more than $4 million in bonding go toward the sports center – the same cannot be said for the MERIT Center.

Supporters of the sports center and MERIT Center projects have said that while the local sales taxes are generating the revenue they’re supposed to, additional funding is needed to build the full range of features planned for each project. A lack of state funding would mean construction would proceed on a scaled-back version. In other words, without that $2.5 million from the state, the proposed driving track for training at the MERIT Center would have to be scaled back.

The assumed lack of state funding will mean a scaled-back version of what MERIT Center supporters originally had in mind. Similar to the sports complex which had a Plan B, MERIT Center plans are still there, only to a lesser degree.

“We’ve got money from the voters, we’ve got the million (from the state) we received three years ago, so we’ll still be able to do some things,” Marshall Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Rob Yant said.

Yant said a smaller training track is still being planned, it just won’t include all the features. A basic track will be constructed with a pad for motorcycle training and other basics. There will also be an addition to the existing building that will house driving and shooting simulators.

“Our highest priority is to build the big loop on the track so you can have higher speeds for training,” Yant said about MERIT Center plans separate from the actual building. “There’s going to be a track, but some of the peripheral things that would be important won’t be there until we get more funding.”

The MERIT Center wasn’t the only public safety item spurned by the Senate last week. Cottage Grove’s HERO Center and the East Metro Public Safety Training Center in Maplewood – both of which were included in the House’s construction package – were left out of the Senate’s.

Only a public safety facility in Montgomery, and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Rescue and Storage Facility were on the Senate’s wish list for 2014.

“Unfortunately, it is what it is,” Yant said. “We hope for the best every year. We’ve got the resources to get it going, just not everything we’d like it to be. We’ll do as much as we can with the funds we have and continue to look for new resources.”

The aforementioned facilities that were left off of the Senate list do not have a matching funds component, unlike the MERIT Center, so supporters of the training facility in Marshall at least have that going for them when they return to St. Paul to continue a renewed push for funding.

Still, Yant knows it’s an uphill climb, one that supporters have to almost start from scratch with.

The city’s companion project – the amateur sports complex – has the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission in its corner, while the MERIT Center isn’t backed by a state group with its foot already in the Capitol door. That means local proponents will need a fresh, back-to-the-drawing-board type of attack at the Capitol – more than likely in front of some new legislators.

“Basically, there isn’t a system for training facilities,” Yant said. “Every two years we’re making a new pitch. Amateur sports has a system with a state commissioner – that’s their biggest advantage; they’re able to overcome this metro-outstate difference. It ends up being a fresh political challenge every year, so it makes site development a little more challenging.”

Beginning of construction on both projects is tentatively set for July.

Earlier this year District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, authored part of an amendment to the Minnesota House’s construction package that would’ve included $1.5 million for the MERIT Center, but that amendment was eventually defeated.