U of M stadium land deal preserves valuable tract

The Vermillion River
The land at the heart of the stadium deal is the source of tributaries for the Vermillion River.
Courtesy of Dakota County

The 2800 acres proposed for the U of M's stadium finance deal is considered an important ecological link in a fast-developing region. The tract is part of a larger block of land donated to the University nearly 50 years ago after a World War II munitions plant closed down.

Sharon Pfeifer, Central Region planner for the state Department of Natural Resources, says the property is a key component of a larger scheme to protect valuable wildlife corridors and a large, important watershed.

"I come from North Dakota and it feels literally like you're out in North Dakota someplace. It doesn't even seem like there's a city around. It seems vast when you're out in the middle of it," she says.

Pfeifer says the UMORE site contains important remnants of oak woodland, patches of prairie and a stand of aspen trees that are scarce in the state's metropolitan areas. The forest is known to serve as habitat for three threatened species: the Blandings turtle, the loggerhead shrike and a small flowering plant known as valerian.

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It's also is the source of tributaries for the Vermillion River just to the south. Sections of the Vermillion are designated as a trout stream. The river runs through a section of 480 acres the DNR and a variety of other government jurisdictions secured just last fall.

This particular arrangement to carve out about 2800 acres here and preserve it...is a good deal for us and to the state.

Pfeifer says the area has been a priority since at least since 1997 when the university considered selling off a portion of their property for a golf course and a housing development.

"A few years back I could have imagined that this university property would be like this only undeveloped spot of open space in a very densely developed county," she says.

The Central Region Director for the DNR, Joe Kurcinka, says the state rarely gets the chance to acquire such large tracts of undeveloped land.

"This is extremely unique opportunity in a metropolitan area that's expected to grow by nearly than a million people by the year 2030," he says.

In the 1940s, the property was home to the Gopher Munitions Works. The smokeless gunpowder plant operated for only about nine months before the war ended. Two years later the U.S. Government deeded the land to the University of Minnesota.

The university owns almost 7800 acres of the original block. The site once contained some 850 buildings. The university continues to use about 30 buildings for offices, research space and storage. If the U of M sells off the southern section, it will still have nearly 5000 acres of the northern portion. The university hired a consultant this year to determine the best use for the property.

The proposed deal allows the university to diminish a source of opposition to its on-campus stadium finance plan. The U of M originally proposed a $100 per year fee for students to pay its portion of the stadium. The new proposal would cut that fee in half.

The state's commitment toward the stadium effort would increase from a little more than $7 million a year to a little more than $9 million. The university's chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter says natural preservations combined with the lower student fees adds momentum to the stadium proposal.

"The university always knew this land was environmentally sensitive and important to us and to the citizens of the state. This particular arrangement to carve out about 2800 acres here and preserve it in a natural setting, what we hope will be forever, is a good deal for us and to the state," he says

The sale would be final after its paid off by the state in 25 years.

The university uses about 100 acres of land in the portion in the sales proposal for agricultural research. The sales agreement allows the U of M to continue its work for as long as it chooses.