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Minnesota bonding bill: Pawlenty OKs DECC project, nixes rail line study

Break out your party hats and construction cranes: The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion promised for the past three years finally will become a reality.

Break out your party hats and construction cranes: The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion promised for the past three years finally will become a reality.

The project will receive $38 million as part of a state bonding bill, from which Gov. Tim Pawlenty chopped $208 million Monday with line-item vetoes.

Also escaping Pawlenty's vetoes were $10 million for a University of Minnesota Duluth civil engineering addition and $28 million for roads and other infrastructure for an Itasca County steel mill. The total bonding bill comes in at $717 million.

Not making the cut were $11 million for a health science center addition at Lake Superior College; $5 million for the Mesabi Range Community and Technical College shop space addition; and $1.5 million for an environmental impact study for a high-speed passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Pawlenty noted the DECC money had been promised for several years.

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"I felt it was important to keep that commitment," he said during a news conference announcing his cuts.

The DECC expansion includes a new hockey arena for the UMD men's and women's teams, which will increase seating capacity by 2,100 and is expected to boost spectator comfort and improve the college's ability to recruit top athletes. It also includes a parking ramp and will provide more space for conventions and concerts, which DECC director Dan Russell said will bring more events to the complex.

Construction will begin in September, Russell said, and will be finished in time for the 2010-11 hockey season. He said the project will bring 300 construction jobs.

"We worked tirelessly to get this investment in Northeast Minnesota," he said.

The expansion's price tag is set at $78 million, which will come from state bonding as well as from UMD and through a .075 percentage point increase in the food and beverage tax, approved by Duluth voters in 2006.

UMD hockey coaches Shannon Miller and Scott Sandelin were upbeat Monday about the news of the DECC expansion, saying that a new building will be good for the school and the community.

"It will be a whole step up from what we have now and, hopefully, our programs will also take a step up as a result," said Miller, who has been behind the bench for UMD's nine varsity women's seasons. "I'd expect that all the little things will be better, like having smooth boards and proper Plexiglas, and a new strength-training and physical therapy facility."

Locker rooms, weight-room facilities, coaches' rooms and the home bench area underwent a $2 million remodeling in 2001. A new $800,000 rink ice-cooling system was installed last year.

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Both coaches agree that the 42-year-old building, which seats 5,301, has charm and atmosphere, but they also know it's the oldest rink in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. They said they hope a new building will help promote their programs,

"Is a new rink the single most important thing in recruiting? No, but it will help," said Sandelin, who has coached the UMD men for eight years. "It helps showcase your program and its history. Players do look closer at facilities than they used to. They see newer rinks in the U.S. Hockey League and other junior leagues, and at other colleges.

"The DECC right now is a great place to watch hockey and is intimate and fan-friendly. First and foremost, we hope to keep that atmosphere."

Said Miller: "It is very hard now to compete with Division I schools like Minnesota and Wisconsin when it comes to rinks, because they have [relatively] new on-campus rinks. A first-class building for us will be one more plus to help in recruiting. The facility you play in does have an impact on recruiting."

UMD athletic director Bob Nielson said he was relieved and excited about the prospect of a new hockey and performance venue in town.

"This project shows the tremendous relationship and cooperation between the city and UMD," Nielson said. "There's been a lot of waiting for this to become a reality, and it's taken a lot of work by a lot of people. It's very exciting for all of us to take this next step and move forward."

MIXED REACTION

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he was pleased with the money for local projects. "It wasn't a victim of the politics played in St. Paul this session," he said.

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But he also was displeased with the projects that were chopped, noting specifically the passenger rail study and the LSC addition.

"It's unfortunate that so many good projects are threatened because of a lack of agreement between leaders in our state," he said.

Lake Superior College had planned a June groundbreaking for its building and had received design money for the building in the last bonding bill.

"To postpone it for a couple of years is very disappointing to us, and probably means the project will become more expensive ... based on changes to the cost of construction," said Gary Kruchowski, a spokesman for the college.

He said the college would try again.

"We think we have a good project that serves our local economy and employers, and good projects tend to ... maintain priority," Kruchowski said.

The bill is good news for UMD, said UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin, but she was disappointed that other area schools' projects were not included.

"I think it's unfortunate that some of the two-year colleges didn't get the funding they needed, because that will be a hardship for them to bear for a few more years," Martin said. "But my priorities were civil engineering, the DECC and some HEAPR [Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement] money for improvements on campus we need for an expanding population."

The University of Minnesota's request for $35 million in HEAPR money also was granted. The money will be divided among all four campuses and is for building renovations.

As for the train study, Ken Buehler, director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the Depot, said that while he was disappointed with the veto, backers of the rail line are looking for other sources of money to move forward with the study.

In making the cuts, Pawlenty said the $925 million bill submitted by the state Legislature was unacceptable and that he wanted to keep spending below $825 million to keep interest payments at a manageable level in tough economic times.

"It is irresponsible to exceed the 'credit card limit' that has been maintained by governors and legislators from both parties for the past 30 years," Pawlenty wrote in his letter announcing that he signed the bonding bill.

There is still a chance that some of the cut items could be put into a second bonding bill before the end of the session in May.

News Tribune staff writers Jana Hollingsworth and Steve Kuchera and Forum Communications' State Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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