On most nights and weekends, the activity center attached to St. Michael-Albertville High School is bustling. Runners and walkers circle the track at the indoor fieldhouse while basketball, wrestling, volleyball or even tennis occupies the six sport courts below.

The fitness center, which boasts a weight room and exercise equipment that would be the envy of many major colleges, attracts a mix of student-athletes and community members. Baseball and softball batting cages are available for year-round training.

There’s more to come. Voters in the St. Michael-Albertville School District recently passed a $36 million bond referendum, with more than $20 million for athletic upgrades that include a 4,000-seat all-purpose stadium with field turf and a nine-lane track that will be covered by an inflatable dome for use during the winter months.

Such facilities growth is not unique to the district on the northwest edge of the Twin Cities. School districts across the metro are building newer and larger athletic facilities, usually with a multimillion-dollar price tag attached.

What is changing is how these venues are viewed.

Bringing in revenue

No longer just places to house their school’s teams, they are being seen as revenue generators, available to local youth organizations, club sports teams and just about any organization willing to pay the rental fees.

“When we built our new high school almost 10 years ago, one of the big questions was how much access to give to the community,” St. Michael-Albertville athletic director Keith Cornell said. “Opening up the six courts and the running track to the community was a selling point.”

In an escalating arms race, high schools are becoming de facto community centers and hubs for athletics at all levels.

Like the neighboring communities it serves, the Prior Lake-Savage School District has been growing rapidly, with enrollment at Prior Lake High School expected to top 3,000 in grades 9 through 12 within a few years. With no community center to siphon off the growing demand for youth athletic facilities, the school district has shouldered the expanding load. Last fall, the district passed a $109.3 million bond referendum that included funds for additional athletic facilities.

“We look at our facilities first as community assets,” Prior Lake activities director Russ Reetz said. “We want our stakeholders — voters that are passing levies — to have access.”

Nearby Shakopee is putting the finishing touches on a 335,000-square-foot expansion of the school and its grounds. A significant portion features a new competition gymnasium and field house, a pool and a new multi-use outdoor football/soccer/lacrosse field with a track.

“A little something for everybody,” Shakopee activities director John Jahnke said. “Part of the reason for building it was the desire to provide opportunities not only for our own students but those from outside as well.”

So much added space carries with it new challenges, such as the need for competent management. Shakopee is taking applications for a manager for community partnerships and facilities, a job that will include setting out an “Open For Business” sign. “It will entail making sure to promote the facilties to individuals and organizations seeking to hold events, generating revenue to help the school,” Jahnke said.

A facilities pioneer

Minnetonka was one of the first school districts to see the money-making possibilites of its athletic facilities. Last fall, the district hired Bill Wenmark, a former school board member and well-known figure in local running circles, to serve as evening and weekend building monitor. He is in charge of the scheduling and maintenance of the high school’s extensive collection of areas of play.

“I take over at the time of day when Minnetonka stops being a school,” is how Wenmark described this position.

In addition to scheduling field usage and overseeing maintenance, part of Wenmark’s mandate was to increase revenues through rental fees.

The centerpiece of Minnetonka’s foray into the world of facility rental is Veterans Field, a 12-year-old baseball stadium that until recently was the only all-field turf stadium in Minnesota, making it usable at a time of year when most baseball fields are still covered in snow.

“It’s a tremendous baseball facility,” Wenmark said in early April, when most baseball teams had yet to hold a single practice outside. “It’s booked every hour, every minute that space is available.”

Built by the Diamond Club, Minnetonka’s baseball booster club, Veterans Field is in nearly constant use in March and April by its own high school teams and other high school and college teams willing to pay the $350 rental fee. It’s been so successful that, of its initial outlay of $4.2 million, only $515,000 remains to be paid off. It should be free of debt in three to five years.

It’s not just Veterans Field that has been a money-maker for Minnetonka. Activities director Ted Schultz said the school’s seasonal inflatable dome showed numbers in the black this year as well.

“Just enough to cover bond payments and operating costs,” Schultz said. “Any profit was put into a trust fund. We call it a down payment for the next one. It wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of a new one.”

Not always open to others

While most school districts are accustomed to renting out facilities, some are more aggressive about it than others. At St. Michael-Albertville, memberships to the activity center were sold within the community to offset costs.

“Memberships are pretty reasonable,” Cornell said. “We have a young and vibrant community that wants opportunities.”

In Buffalo, which spent $11 million to upgrade facilities two years ago, the reason was simply that it was about time. Athletic director Tom Bauman doesn’t see significant opportunities to charge for use.

“Our first thought was that the kids deserve it,” Bauman said. “We don’t see these as revenue producers. We’re 25 miles outside of the metro. There are only a handful of people looking to use them.”

In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest, the football fields at all five high schools are natural grass, bucking the trend for field turf. The schools are loathe to rent out their fields because a year of football, soccer and lacrosse does enough damage to the grass. Coupled with the size of the district’s high schools, available space is scarce.

“At Blaine, we have five levels of boys’ basketball and four levels of girls’,” activities director Shannon Gerrety said. “We’re booked from 3 o’clock to 10 every night.”

As the demand for athletic facilities grows, more districts will face tough decisions on how to meet those demands.

Said Reetz: “Some districts keep up with the growth, other districts stagnate and fall behind. Our goal is to provide the type of facilities our stakeholders can be proud of.”