The long-planned center for winter sports and mountain biking at Wirth Park took a big jump forward Wednesday night when it won preliminary approval from Minneapolis park commissioners.

A Park Board committee approved proposed agreements that will allow the Loppet Foundation to build and donate the center for active sports to the board, lease it back and operate it. Those agreements just need full board approval for the work to begin.

The 14,000-square-foot building would serve as the place where cross-country skiers, bikers, tubers and snowboarders could buy passes, purchase equipment or accessories, use an exercise room, take classes and get food or drink. It would anchor an expanded ski complex, resculpted tubing and snowboarding locations and off-road courses for competitive cycling. Par 9 course golfers could also pay course fees there.

Part of the work, financed in part by the Park Board, would better separate ski trails from the main 18-hole golf course by revamping two holes. The board also would build two parking lots. But it's missing the final piece of money for that --  2017 metro parks funding that's so far been blocked by the Legislature's special session deadlock. 

The foundation's work would cost an estimated $5.3 million, for which the foundation has raised $3.8 million to date. The foundation also has set its sights on landing a masters World Cup cross-country ski event in 2018, which it said would attract some 1,200 athletes. That would require the ski course to be expanded, a temporary measure that nevertheless will be examined to see if it might remain permanently.

That would happen in what likely would be the center's first full operating season, given that the new center isn't scheduled to open until sometime early next year. It's uncertain this week whether full board approval will happen at its next meeting on Aug. 16 to be delayed until early September.

The delegation by the Park Board of running one of its recreation complexes isn't without precedent. A nonprofit long has run an indoor tennis center at King Park.

But one aspect of the proposed operating agreement has attracted unfavorable attention from City Employees Local 363 because Loppet workers would do much of the grooming at the Wirth, Columbia and Hiawatha ski courses, and use park maintenance facilities during the ski season. Assistant Superintendent Michael Schroeder said parkkeepers now assigned to those courses would get other winter duties, and that savings will allow another worker to be hired.  

Union representatives said they just learned the details of the proposed arrangement this week, and that it undercuts living wage jobs for park workers. Commissioner Jon Olson voted against one of the agreements over the matter.

The new center also has received some pushback from golfers, who worried about its impact on Wirth's two courses, but none testified against the proposal at the board meeting.