Savage moves cautiously ahead with sports dome

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 4:11 PM

Taking pains to admit it's no lock to break even, the City Council nevertheless decided the idea is worth exploring further.

Assailed by doubts and aggressive lobbying, Savage's city council signaled late Monday that it is willing to go ahead with a $5 million sports bubble.

"My first question was, 'how in the world can we afford this?'" said Council Member Christine Kelly. "But I have a comfort level now with the numbers we've been given."

Monday's voice vote was mainly to spend the money to formally draw up a site plan. Before bonds would be sold, officials said, there will need to be public reaction to the specifics of the plan.

But it was clear that Monday's vote was a key step in a two-year process that featured lots of hesitation.

During that time, a northern suburb careened from a February 2010 headline reading "Sports complex will be 'huge' in Vadnais Heights" to the August 2011 headline "City loans Vadnais Sports Center $127k to make debt payment."

In Savage, officials say the demand -0from thousands of families for cold-weather facilities close to home should guarantee more than enough revenue to cover the payback for the bonds -- even under conservative projections that don't assume, for instance, any concession revenue or daytime rentals. But the discussion has been held under a cloud of grim what-ifs.

"Is it worth it if we lost $100,000 or $200,000 a year?" City Administrator Barry Stock urged council members last week to ask themselves, during an informal, un-televised workshop. "I don't want us to be like some communities, offering pie-in-the-sky projections and a year later the media's on their case, asking, 'Why didn't this make money?'"

The dome will be aimed at sports such as soccer and lacrosse. The goal is to hurry and catch next winter's season of use, with the first huge payment, $500,000, coming due in 2014.

Council members are insisting that the youth sports groups -- which are pushing for the dome as a way of ending their nightmare winter drives to venues such as Faribault and Vadnais Heights -- sign memorandums of understanding in which they undertake to guarantee a certain number of hours of use.

But city staff members discouraged the council from trying to force the groups to become full financial partners, liable for shortfalls. You could try, Stock told council members at the workshop last week, but be serious: You will not take a bunch of soccer moms and dads who are your own constituents to court for non-performance.

If a subsidy is needed, Stock said, the options include the parks fund -- an idea parks people are not keen on -- or the plain old general fund, meaning tax dollars. Every $100,000 in losses would mean a $9 surcharge on property taxes for the owner of the average home.

Neighbor Kirk Sumner, calling it "a six-story building where we used to see a beautiful park," said he "doesn't want it keeping me awake every night." He recalled living near a park in another community where he wound up calling police regularly about juveniles hanging out selling drugs.

But there were many proponents, including lacrosse coach Mike Walton of Savage. "As coaches, we can't leave the facility till the kids are picked up. We're your neighbors and we won't let this facility turn into the justified fears you have. The proximity to the police department will be a blessing," he added, with police cruisers passing by regularly.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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