The nation’s largest amateur sports complex is crafting a plan for a far-reaching makeover that’s projected to cost a quarter of a billion dollars.
Officials with the state-owned National Sports Center in Blaine aren’t holding their breath when it comes to landing that kind of money any time soon, and no financing or timeline has yet been determined for the plan, which is still just a concept.
But they caution that a sudden surge of sprawling suburban sports behemoths nationwide is creating a tricky competitive environment for them.
“It’s almost an arms race, where other communities around the country have identified that amateur sports bring in real dollars,” said Barclay Kruse, chief spokesman for the Sports Center.
The Blaine sports complex, built by the state for $14.7 million when it opened in 1990, includes a soccer stadium, dozens of soccer fields, a golf course, an ice arena and a convention hall. It draws 4 million visitors a year and is self-sustaining, though the state covers capital costs.
But even as a phalanx of Minnesota officials boarded a coach this fall for a three-day road trip to check out emerging competitors in nearby states, a ceremonial groundbreaking was taking place for a $225 million Rocky Mountain Sports Park in Colorado.
The Minnesotans are quick to agree there is no reason to plunge into a building spree while questions ring in the air about the wisdom of some of those big investments around the country. Last summer, Roger Goudy, CEO of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), warned that we’re “going to come to a point where there is going to be a glut of these things and it’s hard to pay the bill.”
Showing its age
“This is getting to be like walking into a casino,” said Justin Ross, an Indiana University professor who specializes in local government finance. “Some people will win big, but there are corresponding disasters.”
But local officials’ trips to places like the Wisconsin Dells, where “the largest all-turf multisport facility in the Midwest” opened in 2013, or Disney’s 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, have impressed upon them the feeling that Blaine’s 27-year-old piecemeal-built complex is less wow-inducing.
“The biggest thing they have that we don’t have is being brand-new,” said Kruse. “They almost all benefit from being built in one fell swoop, on one piece of property, from Square One. They look perfect. We noticed that their pedestrian access, walkways, placement of gardens, everything looks pretty perfect.”
The issues are apparent. Blaine’s indoor fieldhouse has been overshadowed by Woodbury’s HealthEast Sports Center, not to mention the hangar-scale, 370,000-square-foot monster that popped up in Indiana.
The Blaine venue lost a marquee event when it stopped hosting pro soccer games, though United FC still trains there. The cycling velodrome, blasted for decades by Minnesota’s pitiless weather, is decaying to the point of needing to be “decommissioned” within two years, Kruse said. It still boasts of being the only outdoor wood-plank velodrome in the Western hemisphere.
Blaine officials would love to see the revival of an idea that arose in the middle of the past decade, when a developer proposed a $40 million “Sports Town USA” complex. But they say there’s no prospect of a state agency taking such a risk.
Some of the Blaine facility’s plans involve relatively minor fixes. Spaces between fields, for instance, would turn into “comfort/play nodes” where younger kids can be entertained while their older siblings compete. A pair of pedestrian bridges would sprout across a major county road, making road crossings safer.
To ease what has been at times a rocky relationship with the city of Blaine, the master plan contemplates amenities aimed at use by locals, such as a dog park and a BMX bicycle track.
The potential future price tag jumps when especially ambitious additions are recommended, among them:
• A community center built in partnership with the city. A public school is now rising on the Sports Center campus, at school district expense.
• An indoor domed facility for soccer to replace the current fieldhouse.
• A mini-version of the pro soccer stadium going up in the Midway area of St. Paul, allowing kids to pretend to be pros.
‘A family vacation’
The lure for people in the world of sports complexes is the prediction that the industry looks set to grow by billions of dollars in the years to come.
“Eight-year-olds don’t drive themselves to these events,” said Goudy, whose AAU stages more than 1,000 events at any given time. “It’s Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa and the dog and the cat. … It’s a family vacation.”
User reviews of Blaine’s complex, as Executive Director Todd Johnson and his staff are quick to acknowledge, are spiked with complaints about confusing layouts, poor directions and bad memories.
Legislators over the years have authorized $30 million in all for construction at a facility that would likely cost $170 million to replace today.
But competitors are growing into that same size. The national trend in recent years has been to scale up — from $30 million to $80 million complexes up to hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of acres of space.
For the short term, Johnson said, a $6 million request to the 2018 Legislature is aimed strictly at “asset preservation” to upgrade deteriorating parts of the Sports Center, including huge cracks and mold.
“In a conservative political moment,” Johnson said, “our story right now is about maintaining what we have.”