All of the gigantic remains. But much of the magic is slipping away.
Woodbury’s sprawling Bielenberg Sports Center still boasts of more than 3,500 sprinkler heads connected by 22 miles of piping, pampering scores of athletic fields, and a fieldhouse half again as big — at 90,000 square feet — as Bill Gates’ mansion.
But a proposed full-service restaurant featuring a $66,000 fireplace has melted away. And the glamour promised from being training headquarters for a pro soccer team has gone, too.
Now the creator of the foundation raising funds for a third marquee feature — the state’s largest universally accessible play area, costing a cool $1 million — is expressing her frustration over a tepid reaction to years of pleas for help from within the affluent Washington County suburb.
“We’ve done a lot of asking,” Dana Millington said. “And we’ve heard a lot of ‘no’s.’ ”
Proof that the project’s troubles surprised folks can be found affixed to the wall inside the building. A giant timeline in permanent metal type asserts that the last two major features were added in the year 2014:
“Adjacent to the splash pad,” it declares, “Madison’s Place universal access playground was built through the support of the Madison Claire Foundation. In addition, the Minnesota United professional soccer team constructed a training facility and locker room attached to the west side of the fieldhouse.”
Actually … not.
The sign is a monument to the hazards of the “public-private partnership,” the vogue for leveraging public dollars with donations from, or business deals with, the private and nonprofit sectors.
But city administrator Clint Gridley isn’t discouraged.
“While we have faced some unique challenges, they are small in comparison to the overall project scope,” he said. “…We may need more time and some of the components may change, but we’re confident we’ll find the right solutions.” The city remains “excited,” he adds, “to be the home of one of the top sports facilities in the state.”
Bielenberg began life in the mid-90s as a fairly modest facility with a fabric dome. But it is the recent $22 million expansion that has brought some hiccups.
Like a fading mall food court with cheerful drawings covering the false front where the fast-food pizza place used to be, at Bielenberg, a temporary wall, strung with posters, disguises just how much space is empty on the second floor, where a restaurant was supposed to go.
That concept stalled in June when the city and the would-be operator, Stillwater-based Gartner Restaurant Holdings, landed in court, disputing who did what to whom and who’s going to have to pay how much.
Then, this month, it emerged that the deal with pro soccer club Minnesota United FC, reached in the fall of 2013, was off as well. The team, which put nearly $1 million into the Bielenberg expansion, was to shift its training site away from Blaine’s National Sports Center. Club president Nick Rogers has been vague on the reasons for pulling out of the deal.
Today Woodbury officials are strongly pushing upcoming fundraisers for the costly universal playground, hoping to minimize further delays in the completion of that portion of the complex.
Fundraising began in 2010, the foundation’s Millington said. If the initial $600,000 goal had remained intact, the playground would be close to a go by now. Instead, ambitions have swelled. The city will provide a splash pad and the foundation’s portion of the 16,000-square-foot feature now needs $850,000. Of that, $350,000 is needed; $200,000 has been pledged but not yet received.
“We’ve had a lot of financial support from outside of Woodbury,” said Millington, who lives in the suburb. “But this community’s own financial grass-roots support has been missing from the get-go. If we could get into that, there’d be no problem finishing.”
One problem, she said: “People think we have plenty of playgrounds already.”
What that view misses, she said, is this particular playground’s unusual goal of accessibility for all.
“With people who don’t have experience with a child with a disability, there’s not that understanding of this new concept. When we started there was only one other [such] playground in Minnesota, though we’ve since had the pleasure of seeing others. I’m trying to talk to people about how we could cut bullying if kids can play with kids with a disability — have friendships already in place early on.”
Across the complex, city officials concede, a great deal remains up in the air.
The restaurant space? “Until we are further along in the legal process or a settlement has been reached, we have not taken steps to market the space for a restaurant,” Gridley said. “However, a number of businesses have reached out to express their interest in the space.”
The soccer training area? “The city will continue to explore its options for potential uses for the space and we’re confident we’ll find the right fit.”
In the end, he suggests, it’s all just speed bumps.
A new outdoor refrigerated recreational skating rink “has been a huge success, drawing thousands of skaters already this winter,” he said. “[Bielenberg] truly is the crown jewel of our extensive parks and recreation system.”