MARSHALL - A major financial hurdle was cleared Tuesday night for backers of a new regional amateur sports facility and expansion at the MERIT Center when Marshall voters passed a pair of ballot initiatives that will implement a .5 percent city sales tax and 1.5 percent hospitality tax to help pay for them.
There were two questions on the ballot - one for funding for the sports complex, the other, funding for the MERIT Center, which is looking to expand and construct a multi-purpose driving course. Question 1 passed 3,636 to 2,417, while Question 2 passed 3,747 to 2,359.
The proposed $12.9 million sports complex, which will be built at the intersection of Minnesota highways 23 and 19 on land donated by the Schwan Food Co., will have two sheets of ice and four softball/baseball fields. City officials to date have been unsuccessful in attaining financial help from the state, twice being denied a $4 million request to the Legislature. The city also failed to qualify for funding from a special DEED grant program set up this summer when the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton opted to give it the responsibility of doling out $47.5 million to economic development-based projects around the state.
The state has also denied funding for the MERIT Center; it asked for $2.5 million this year. However, the MERIT Center does have money in the bank - the Legislature approved $300,000 in bonding for the MERIT Center in 2008 and approved $1 million of a $2.14 million request in 2010. That same year, the MERIT Center received a $100,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation for an ethanol prop.
"We're absolutely excited," said MERIT Center Board Chairman Stan Brewers. "We have a million dollars sitting there from two years ago that we haven't been able to do anything with. Now, we can put that to use immediately and start planning, figuring out what the first steps will be, working with designs for the projects."
Supporters of both projects knew without a local financial commitment, getting money from the state would be no easy task. Now though, with the sales tax option approved, they're hoping the state will come through in the future.
"It's very encouraging, because now when we go to the state Legislature and ask for money we'll have our sales tax in place," said Brewers. "There are no guarantees, but now that we have that, they'll be much more inclined to give us money because we will already have the matching funds in place. That's absolutely huge for us and is a big part of putting the MERIT Center on the map."
Brewers said he and others will soon tour other cities that have driving courses such as St. Cloud and Sioux City, Iowa. There's also one at Camp Ripley, Brewers said, that's used primarily for the military.
"We want to go out and get some really good ideas of what we can build," he said. "Now the real work begins."
The groups behind the projects have long held a sense of optimism, and the passage of the local sales tax boosts that outlook even more. Southwest Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission co-chairman Roger Madison said Paul Erickson of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission has told him the sports complex in Marshall will be the Legislature's No. 1 priority for bonding for facilities. Although 2013 is not a bonding year, there is a chance some monies may be given out, but a more realistic target for significant potential funding is 2014.
"With the changeover in the Legislature, I would expect a larger bonding bill than in the past," Madison said. "Gov. Dayton was here and got to see firsthand the project we're talking about and how it's moved from being a hockey rink to a real economic development project.
Madison said the SMASC owns the design concept for the proposed facility, so it has the ability to tweak it and improve on it, which will be one of the many steps that will be taken in the future. Madison also said the sports group plans to be engaged with the community to gather input on what will make it a successful facility. Other key steps that need to be addressed is how the facility is going to be run and how the financing will work out between the sports complex and MERIT Center.