October 19, 2005
Postcard: DECC-adence? Hardly

By Jess Myers

Picture this scenario: You’re a father of two sons, one of them 16 and the other 14. They’re both good bicyclists and they race competitively, often against one another. For the older one, you purchase a top-of-the-line 15-speed racing bike. For the younger one, you provide an antique three-speed Schwinn with a basket on the front. Then you wish them both good luck, and the race begins.

For many fans, city officials and athletic department higher-ups at Minnesota Duluth, this is akin to how they feel they’re being treated by the University of Minnesota system – the folks who ultimately control the athletic purse strings for the U of M’s four campuses.

Two of those campuses are in Minneapolis and Duluth, and both have D-I hockey programs for men and women. But whereas the Minneapolis-based Golden Gophers play in relatively new (Mariucci arena opened in 1993) state-of-the-art, on-campus facilities, their Duluthian counterparts, the Bulldogs, play five miles from campus in a city-owned convention facility that’s nearly 40 years old.

In hopes of keeping the current Bulldog freshmen from having to play in a 43-year-old, off-campus convention facility when they’re seniors, a full-blown effort to build a new facility in the shadow of the city’s famed Aerial Lift Bridge is underway. Recently, school and city officials met with several members of the Minnesota Senate’s Capital Investment Committee, showing them detailed plans for a new 6,630-seat rink they want built in the parking lot of the current arena.

Duluth mayor Herb Bergson got right to the root of the issue, saying that it’s becoming harder and harder for UMD to compete for top hockey recruits when the school is offering them a home rink that’s the oldest (and third-smallest) in the WCHA.

The new arena Duluth and UMD officials covet would accommodate more than 6,600 hockey fans.

The new building is projected to cost $67 million. While asking the state to pay for half of that (the rest would be financed through a city-wide sales tax increase on food and drink), project backers point out that the price tag is modest in comparison to the estimated $478 million for a new Minnesota Twins ballpark, the $675 million stadium the Minnesota Vikings want or even the proposed new $235 million home of Golden Gopher football.

While acknowledging that his team’s current home has atmosphere and character that can’t be matched in the league’s newer facilities, Bulldog coach Scott Sandelin is squarely behind the new project.

“It’s time that we get a new rink,” says Sandelin. “I love the rink that we play in, but you’ve gotta keep up with the Joneses.”

The facility issue is far from a new one at UMD. The Bulldogs christened the DECC (then called the Duluth Arena) on Nov. 19, 1966, pasting the Gophers 8-1 behind a school-record six assists from Keith “Huffer” Christiansen, the school’s first hockey All- American. But even then there was howling that the team belonged on campus, not downtown. Nearly four decades later, the debate still rages with residents living near the UMD campus and downtown hotel and restaurant managers steadfastly opposed to having the region’s top sports draw play anywhere other than the downtown waterfront.

An artist's rendering of the exterior of the proposed Duluth arena.

UMD vice chancellor Greg Fox describes the new DECC project as “far more beautiful and more multi-purpose than what we’d be able to build on campus,” and notes that the school has committed to paying upwards of $16 million in rent over the new building’s first 25 years.

Of course, myriad questions remain unanswered and there are dozens of hurdles to clear before backers can meet their goal of breaking ground in early 2007 and a first face-off in October 2008. Step one toward meeting those deadlines will be convincing the state legislature and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (a big Gopher hockey fan) to approve the necessary state funding.

The 2006 Minnesota legislative session starts in March and with elections looming roughly a year from now, sports facility issues are predicted to be tough votes. Supporters note that a delay could be spendy not only in missed recruits, but also in the potential for skyrocketing construction costs in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

“If it doesn’t happen, we’ll fix up what we have and do what we can,” says Sandelin. He doesn’t bother to note that his team, three-speed Schwinn and all, is 6-2 in its last eight races versus that older brother with the 15-speed racing bike.