Plan still unclear for Rochester $65 million sports and rec facility going before voters

The easy part ended when the Minnesota Legislature rubber-stamped Rochester’s request to ask voters to extend the city’s expiring half-cent local sales tax for another 16 years. This fall residents will vote on whether to approve the tax extension projected to raise some $205 million for city hall’s pet projects.

Yet convincing a majority of voters to support their vision may not be as hard as coming up with a plan for the star project to be funded by the tax, a still ill-defined $65 million regional sports and recreation complex.

It’s a classic case of the cart going before the horse. City movers and shakers decided the sports and recreational complex should go before voters more than a year ago. But officials have had a heck of a time ever since determining what to do with it, exactly which pressing needs the facility would fill and whom it would benefit to justify spending $65 million of taxpayer funds.

The Post-Bulletin was on hand for a recent open house hosted by the consultant hired to fill in the blanks on questions over the complex and in a hurry.

Plans to build a $65 million complex have received state legislative approval for a 2024 citywide vote to extend Rochester’s half-cent sales tax, but a vote will require a more-honed plan.

Tuesday, city-hired consultants held an open house to help move in that direction.

“It will still be a preliminary design,” Cyle Erie, project executive with ISG, said of the consultants’ work set to be completed next month.

ISG has been hired to identify needs for the complex, create a preliminary concept and propose an operating plan.

It turns out one of the key purposes for the facility would be to host regional sports events with participants from up to four hours away.

Erie said a successful sports complex needs eight to 16 playing fields or at least eight courts in a single location to draw regional events, which would boost local economic activity during the weekend.

“The idea is to build a facility that is regional in scope and impact and draws in from the region,” he said, noting participants could come from Chicago, Des Moines, the Twin Cities and Fargo, which would increase hotel stays and tourism.

But local residents would be more than welcome to use the complex when out-of-town teams aren’t booked.

In addition to boosting economic activity on weekends, Erie said the proposed complex would provide a community asset with public access for a variety of events and activities.

“When it’s not being used for those big tournaments, the community has access to those fields and at any time the recreational component of it,” he said.

Alas, the most popular “want” among those responding to a city survey on the center will not be available to the public.

A March survey revealed 67% of nearly 1,900 participants said a swimming pool was a priority or high priority for the proposed complex, but Anderson-Tuttle said a pool is not being considered at this point.

“You are not seeing it here, because the city has a pool project underway,” she said, pointing to the aquatic center being built at Soldiers Field Park.

Last, if not least, the consultant will take a stab at how much the facility will cost to operate and how much Rochester taxpayers will have to pay to subsidize it.

Erie said the success of a regional sports complex depends on its ability to draw activity and cover costs of operations.

He said ISG has been tasked with presenting the city an operating plan that outlines how the facility would function without added financial burden.

“That’s the next phase of our effort,” he said, pointing out that the plan requires added clarity related to the complex’s planned facilities.

The pressure’s on for the city to produce a winning argument to pitch to voters before November. Residents will also vote separately on each of three additional individual projects to be funded by the tax extension–$50 million for economic development, $50 million for street work and $40 million for flood control and water quality. How the sports and recreation complex plays with the electorate may well determine the outcome of the other projects.