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Future of BSU hockey rides on bonding bill

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Pep talk
Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard briefs the Beaver men's hockey team on the status of the community's bonding request. BSU and the City of Bemidji are asking for money to build a regional events center and hockey arena.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

BSU Beaver hockey is huge in Bemidji. The men's team has a 52-year history and has won 13 national titles. 

But the Beavers play in a conference that has an uncertain future. Membership in the College Hockey America conference has dwindled to just four teams, so it appears likely the CHA will disband.

Field house
The John Glas Fieldhouse has been home to BSU Beaver hockey for 41 years. BSU officials say the building is too small and doesn't have the amenities needed for the hockey program to survive.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

BSU President Jon Quistgaard has turned his sights to the larger and more prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association. 

The WCHA is home to the University of Minnesota Gophers, as well as the University of Minnesota, Duluth, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota State University, Mankato and other teams from throughout the West and Midwest. 

The BSU women's hockey team is already a member of the WCHA. Quistgaard says the problem is, admission into the WCHA men's league requires hockey facilities that can hold at least 4,000 people. BSU's 41-year-old arena can only handle half that number, at best. 

BSU has been trying to get a new arena for years. Quistgaard says it's now essential to make hockey financially viable for BSU.

"We need a facility that can accommodate larger houses, more people," said Quistgaard. "We need to move in the direction of having suites and some of these other amenities, that are just crucial to providing the necessary financial support to ensure a very, very strong future for Beaver hockey."

Richard Lehmann
Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann says the proposed events center is key to the community's economic development strategy. Lehmann says the project could spur $200 million in new development around Lake Bemidji's south shore and the downtown area.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The WCHA for several years has had a freeze on admitting new teams into the conference. The organization has include the Beaver men's team in its schedule, but they've been mostly away games and are considered non-conference match-ups.

In December, the WCHA agreed to schedule more non-conference home games between the Beavers and WCHA teams beginning with the 2010-11 season. The agreement, however, is contingent on the opening of Bemidji's proposed regional events center and arena.  

The proposed facility has a $50 million pricetag. It's designed to provide a venue not just for hockey, but for conventions, concerts, trade shows and other events. The center would be located on a large stretch of property along Lake Bemidji's south shore.

Mayor Richard Lehmann says independent projections show the project and surrounding development could have as much as a $13 million annual impact on the local economy. It's expected to create several hundred new jobs.

"For the city of Bemidji, it's an economic development tool," said Lehmann. "The city has positioned itself -- with the purchase of the land down there -- to make this the anchor development of a much broader development in that area. There's a swath across there that can see $200 million or more dollars in development. And the events center itself is really a key part of this whole thing."

"Without an updated arena ... BSU will not be in the WCHA. And without going into that conference, the days are numbered for the program."

Part of the project would be paid for with a local sales tax, which has already been approved by voters and was recently signed into law by the governor. The city is asking the state for $22 million to cover the rest. 

With the bonding bill stalled now in the Legislature, it's unclear what will happen next. Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants lawmakers to limit the bonding bill to $825 million. If the Legislature sticks to that figure, it's unlikely Bemidji's project would get full funding.

Bemidji is just one of a number of cities looking for bonding dollars this session. 

Recently, Pawlenty told Lakeland Public Television he hasn't closed the door on any particular project, but he says the state cannot afford to fund them all this year.

"You've got a state that is facing a budget deficit," Pawlenty said. "We have priorities like education, health care and transportation, and we've got a half a dozen communities across the state who'd like the state to pay for their hockey rink. That's not a bad thing. I'm a big hockey fan. But we have to set priorities."

Bemidji area lawmakers are pushing hard to keep funding intact for the events center. State Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, says he favors a larger bonding bill that creates more jobs. 

Moe says if BSU doesn't get a new arena, it's unlikely the university would be able to financially support a hockey program.

"Without an updated arena that meets WCHA standards, Bemidji State University will not be in the WCHA," said Moe, "and without going into that conference, the days are numbered for the program." 

Quistgaard and Lehmann were to meet with the governor March 18 to discuss the project. House and Senate leaders, meanwhile, are still haggling over how big of a bonding bill they'll send to the governor.