Woodbury’s $21.8 million remodeling and expansion of the Bielenberg Sports Center — now heading for completion this spring — will bring more than just the transformation of one of the region’s largest athletic complexes.
Beyond the new, larger fieldhouse, outdoor ice rink and other upgrades, the new center will mark three changes for the city. Its taking its first foray into professional sports, it will be the site of Minnesota’s first entirely inclusive playground where people of all physical and developmental abilities can play together, and it will provide a full-service restaurant and venue for parties and other events.
To pay for those projects, the city has entered into partnerships with three private entities: the Minnesota United FC professional soccer club, to build a 7,500-square-foot all-season training center connected to the new fieldhouse; the Madison Claire Foundation, to build the 16,000-square-foot accessible playground, and with Gartner Restaurant Holdings of Stillwater to be the new the private food vendor.
The partnerships are a departure from how the sports center has been run since it opened in 1995, but projects and financial agreements were carefully considered, said Bob Klatt, director of Woodbury’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“When the city was considering these partnerships, we were looking at two things: No. 1, they had to pay for themselves, and No. 2, they had to benefit the overall expansion project,” he said. “In all three cases, they are paying for themselves, and all three fit in very well” with the city’s efforts to enhance the sports center as both a community and regional attraction.
Along with a new 90,000-square-foot fieldhouse (nearly doubling its size), the project includes an expanded lobby, an outdoor refrigerated recreational skating rink, a storage building, a geothermal heating system and solar water-heating panels, plus improvements to its two indoor skating rinks.
The city was approached by Minnesota United FC to include the year-round practice facility and will pay about $1.4 million for its construction.
“For me, it’s awesome — I grew up a mile away from Bielenberg,” said Brian Kallman, a defender on the team who also coaches for the Woodbury Soccer Club. His brother Brent also plays for Minnesota United, and the whole Kallman family, with six kids, has been deeply involved with the sport.
The team plays and practices at the National Sports Center in Blaine, but having a full-size field on which to train all year will be a strong recruitment tool for players. Unlike other pro leagues, the North American Soccer League of which the team is a part does not have a draft.
The complex also will bolster the sport in Woodbury, Kallman added, where boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at Woodbury and East Ridge high schools are consistently strong. At least five professional soccer players grew up in Woodbury, and many others play at Division I level in college.
The addition of the training center in Woodbury is part of a new commitment to professional soccer in Minnesota since the team was bought late in 2012 by Bill McGuire, former UnitedHealth Group CEO, said Nick Rogers, team president. The team — formerly the Minnesota Thunder, then Minnesota Stars — had fallen on hard financial times but still has had success on the field, winning the league title in 2011 and reaching the final in 2012. The new center, he said, is part of laying a solid foundation for the team’s future success.
The team wasn’t actively seeking a training field, but the sports center expansion presented an opportunity. “I guess it just sort of fell into our lap,” Rogers said.
Filling a need
For children with disabilities who face obstacles, along with their families, in their quest for the simple act of playing, the expansion project also offered an opportunity for the Madison Claire Foundation, said Dana Millington, the Woodbury nonprofit group’s president. She and her husband, Dave, began the foundation to honor their daughter, who died at age 2 from spinal muscular atrophy, caused by a genetic defect.
Madison’s Place, on the south end of the fieldhouse next to a planned splash pad, will be the only playground in Minnesota that will be fully ramped, allowing children and adults of any mobility level to access the highest playing areas, she said.
“One of the big things behind the project is the educational piece behind it,” she said. “It’s not just a playground for kids with special needs, but it will be a place where kids of all abilities can play together.”
The need for such playgrounds is glaringly apparent, she added. Her decision to start and lead a nonprofit group sprang from her own experience as the parent of a child with special needs facing an impossible choice at a playground: letting Madison’s siblings roam the area alone or leave Madison alone in her wheelchair at the edge of the playground.
The foundation’s fundraising goal is $600,000. Fundraising events and a $10,000 grant from the Andersen Corporate Foundation in Bayport have helped those efforts, and the foundation is still looking for corporate and private donations, she said.
Woodbury also is joining a growing trend at public arenas by contracting with a private restaurant service provider, Klatt said. In June, the city approved a contract with Gartner Restaurant Holdings of Stillwater, which has been selected as the private food vendor. The company operates the Dairy Queen Grill and Chill and Mara-Mi Store & Café in Stillwater, and the Chill Zone concessions in the St. Croix Valley Recreation Center.
GRH’s concept includes a full-service restaurant on the second floor, a concession stand on the first floor, and food service carts and potential service in the surrounding athletic fields.
Under the deal, the city takes responsibility for $500,000 in added capital costs for the lower-level concession area, fireplace, mechanical systems, counters and cabinetry. The money is provided through an internal 20-year loan and repaid from the gross sales receipts.
The city will receive 12 percent of gross sales up to $1 million and 10 percent for sales beyond $1 million.