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Jeff Kolpack, Published April 02 2013

Attention to detail: NDSU making sure everything is in order before moving ahead with BSA renovation

FARGO - Almost $32 million has been raised for the Bison Sports Arena renovation on the North Dakota State campus. If fundraising were compared to a marathon, it has completed 26 miles, but the last 385 yards has been a laborious process where every detail is being examined like a detective solving a felony.

The message to the athletic department is clear: there is no room for error.

“We do not want to make a mistake where we cause issues for future projects or other campuses,” said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor.

In a sense, the BSA project is on high alert after a NDSU president’s house project that got messy, mainly with cost over-runs that reached a crescendo in 2009. The North Dakota Legislature authorized NDSU and the University of North Dakota to spend $900,000 in donations on each house, but NDSU’s final cost totaled $2.07 million and UND’s $1.26 million.

The athletic arena is the first major privately-funded campus project since the house uproar and Taylor said he’s been told the following two points are non-negotiable.

“You will not go over the cost of the project and we will make sure we have every permission in place before we move forward,” he said.

Some major steps have already been completed. Up to $35 million has been approved for the governor’s budget, which is expected to be addressed toward the end of this legislative session. If the BSA is approved, NDSU officials will go before the state Board of Higher Education and present the financial details, which include documentation from the NDSU Development Foundation saying the commitments are in place.

As of last week, Taylor said $31.75 million has been secured with a couple of major gift requests still on the table.

The Legislature approves or rejects such projects because it wants to know what’s being constructed on state-owned land.

“We could say no but typically we don’t on privately-funded ones because essentially they are giving the state an asset,” said Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

So far, it appears NDSU’s attention to detail is satisfying state leaders. If school officials appear skittish over the project, state leaders appear anything but. Holmberg said the BSA project is “different” from the president’s house, mainly because of the size of it.

Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, the co-vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, agrees saying “I don’t think this project is anything related to the house. That was a unique convergence of decision-makers. There were too many cooks in the kitchen on that one.”

There appears to be more trust in the case of the BSA, a chain of command that includes Mike Ellingson, the university facilities management director and Bruce Bollinger, NDSU’s vice president for finance and administration.

“Bruce’s word is golden in my opinion,” Grindberg said. “If he says the project is ready, it will be ready.”

Holmberg said it would be possible for the BSA to begin construction with not all of the funds raised, but it would have to cut back the project – something Taylor said he’s unwilling to do.

Holmberg acknowledged there is precedent for the state appropriations to OK a project despite not all private funding being secure, such as the Heritage Center expansion on the Capitol grounds in the 2009 session.

Taylor said he wasn’t aware of such a possibility, but he also didn’t appear to be in favor of it, either.

“Our clear understanding based on what happened with the president’s home is you will not come to us and ask permission for construction until you have the ability to say, yes, all the dollars have been raised,” he said.

Taylor was asked the question citing the deteriorating condition of the BSA. There are confirmed reports of pieces of concrete falling through false ceiling tiles in first floor offices.

Moreover, working conditions for employees below the weight lifting facility on the second floor are distracting at best.

“That’s one thing we haven’t done, we haven’t brought in a contingent of legislators and said, ‘See the cracks on the wall? See the bricks falling down?’” he said. “Because our understanding was the state wasn’t going to help us fund it. The fact is it is deteriorating faster and faster and that does cause us concern.”

A best-case timeline to address the aging building, assuming the necessary funds are raised, would go as follows: legislative approval later this month, Board approval in May and then a four- to five-week process of seeking construction bids.

The bids would probably be awarded in July followed soon by a shovel in the ground. That’s assuming bids come in on budget. If they go over, the university would have to explain the circumstances to lawmakers during the interim session and obtain approval to spend more than they were approved to spend.

The BSA opened in 1971 as one of the premier collegiate multi-use facilities in the Upper Midwest. Age has taken its toll.

The track and field teams have already moved into the $5 million Shelly Ellig Indoor Track & Field facility, which is considered the first phrase of the renovation project. The 6,000-seat basketball arena will be known as the Scheels Center and the entire facility will be called the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. For the naming rights, Scheels All Sports donated $5 million and Sanford provided $10 million.

Taylor said Fargo-based T.L. Stroh Architects and Interiors has plans ready to go. There have been only a couple of minor changes in the last few months, such as adding square footage to the weight training room and moving the sports information office to the second floor.

“It’s going to be a great recruiting piece,” Taylor said. “Collectively with the basketball practice facility, the weight room – everything – it’s going to be a great facility.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia