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ST. CLOUD – This city had to listen to a lot of no before it finally got to yes.
But last month the Minnesota Legislature signed off on the funding the community needed to finally complete its expansion of St. Cloud's River's Edge Convention Center. The city had been asking for the funding for the past 14 years, through seven legislative cycles and three governors' administrations.
"This is the last piece," said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, celebrating after his city was awarded the $11.6 million it needed to complete its expansion and build a new parking ramp for the facility. The celebration capped a decade and a half of watching the city's original funding requests get vetoed or squeezed out of bonding bills.
Funding for a parking ramp might not sound like the sort of battle a city would wage for years on end. But for its supporters, the unglamorous parking structure was a necessary step toward a thriving downtown. It wouldn't do much good to expand the convention center and bring new businesses downtown if none of your visitors could find a place to park, Kleis said.
Every even-numbered year, the Legislature works on a bonding bill, leveraging the state's borrowing ability to help local communities with projects they might not have been able to afford on their own. This year's $1 billion bonding bill infused cash into projects all over the state, funding road and bridge projects, new campus construction and millions for everything from museums to wildlife areas to affordable housing.
But few communities have been waiting as long, or lobbying as doggedly for its slice of the bonding pie, as St. Cloud.
"Mayor Kleis [has] been working on this since I was in high school," state Rep. Zachary Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud. "It's nice to come to a news conference here where it's about 'Hey, we got this!' rather than 'Hey, can we get this?' "
"They've been pushing this project since longer than I was in office," agreed Gov. Mark Dayton, who came to St. Cloud for a bonding bill victory lap. "It's a triumph of persistence over adversity."
The convention center and its new parking ramp all contribute to a healthier downtown, and a healthy downtown, the governor said, is essential to the economic health of the whole region.
"Downtowns are just essential," the governor said. "Whatever we can do to support the convention center and the other businesses in this area to encourage people to be coming downtown, shopping downtown, recreating downtown, is going to benefit the city, the region and our entire state."
The city spent $22 million expanding the 25-year-old facility in 2010 and 2011. The upgraded convention center opened for business in January 2012 — but without the extra parking or other features it was hoping the state would contribute. The city estimates that the expansion will help pump an additional $20 million into the local economy.
"The state benefits from this facility doing well," Kleis said.
Despite the delays, the timing "couldn't be better," the mayor said. The city expects to complete construction and have the new parking structure open by next fall, just in time for a series of large conventions, with lots of visitors looking for parking.
This could be the last bonding request St. Cloud makes for a while.
"This has been our project for a long time," said Kleis. "Now we focus on potholes."