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DECC, UMD explore possible tweaks to Amsoil Arena deal

The crowd watches as the UMD mens' hockey team plays against Alberta in September 2017 at Amsoil Arena. (News Tribune file photo)

The Bulldogs have been angling for an extra home-ice advantage recently.

When Amsoil Arena was completed in 2011, the University of Minnesota Duluth entered into a 25-year contract with the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to lease the facility for the use of its men's and women's hockey programs.

UMD would pay the DECC $227,573 in December of 2010, with that fee set to escalate progressively through the 25-year life of the agreement. By the final year of the contract, UMD would pay more than $898,000.

In December of this year, the Bulldogs are expected to make their latest annual payment of nearly $560,0000 for rent and advertising at the DECC.

But recent discussions between UMD, Mayor Emily Larson and the DECC have broached the subject of restructuring the lease agreement to allow for reduced payments over a longer period of time.

It has been an admittedly difficult discussion, said Chelly Townsend, executive director of the DECC facility.

"They signed a lease, and it was a lease that our attorneys carefully crafted. It was all agreed upon at the time. Since then, UMD has made some cuts, and they were looking for some relief with this agreement," she said.

"Initially we said there was really no room for that conversation. But after some conversations with Josh Berlo in the athletic department, he has really explained in a little more detail that it's not a lot that they're asking," Townsend said.

Berlo, UMD's athletic director, pointed to a 2015 change in National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that allowed schools to offer athletic scholarships covering the full cost of a student's attendance, including books, travel and other incidental expenses.

To remain competitive, Berlo said UMD has begun offering these beefed-up scholarships to student athletes. The men's and women's hockey programs both have been allotted 18 full cost-of-attendance scholarships with each adding about $3,000 to the previous budget. That translates to an additional expense of about $108,000 for UMD.

"It's something that most of the top programs in the country are doing. It's very important from a recruiting perspective, so that we can ensure that we have the opportunity to talk to the best high school boys and girls hockey players available, wherever they may be playing — in the U.S., Canada, Europe or wherever that may be," Berlo said.

But he noted the larger scholarships have put additional strain on UMD's budget, prompting recent talks about possible tweaks to the Amsoil contract.

"In conversations with Amsoil and the DECC, who are exceptional partners in both the competitive success and the financial success of Bulldog hockey, we wanted to collaboratively discuss ensuring that we can support our Bulldog hockey programs to the highest level for the long term. I asked them to look at some options of how we can do that. The full cost-of-attendance scholarships were not something that was in place when we initially worked with Amsoil Arena," Berlo said.

Larson said she has had only a brief preliminary discussion with Berlo about UMD's concerns but remains open to further talks about the arena.

"UMD provides a tremendous service and opportunity for the community at that facility. It's been a really good partnership, and of course I think we all want it to continue to be a really great, strong, mutually beneficial partnership," she said.

Townsend said UMD also has looked at the revenue side of the equation, and has raised the idea of allowing for more liberalized sales of beer and wine in the arena.

"They're requesting alcohol, and we're exploring that possibility as well," she said.

Berlo confirmed UMD's desire to revisit alcohol sales, saying: "We're certainly interested in new revenue streams, and we're interested in the fan experience. We have heard interest from the Bulldog fan base of men's and women's hockey for accessibility to alcohol. But we would certainly want that to be in a very family-friendly, student-friendly, safe and enjoyable atmosphere."

Berlo noted that other programs have been moving in the same direction.

"It has become much more common in collegiate athletics in the last few years to see alcohol served at events. Just last evening, I saw an announcement that Boston College hockey is going to have alcohol at their events," he said.

Townsend said the DECC certainly intends to work with UMD to help ensure the success of its hockey programs but observed that reopening the Amsoil Arena contract won't be easy.

"We've had those conversations, and we get it. They're our biggest partner, so we want to make them happy. But we also have to be good stewards of our building for the long run, and we did that so deliberately with that contract that it's hard to start to take it apart at this point," she said.

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