Future DakotaDome use comes with steep price tag

It's going to take money — more than $80,000 annually, it appears — for the Vermillion Tanagers to continue to play football in the DakotaDome.

It's money that the Vermillion School District remains reluctant to part with, because it can invest it into more worthwhile projects — including improvements to its own outdoor football field located near the high school.

A DakotaDome cooperative use advisory committee, made up of representatives from the Vermillion community, the school district, and USD, held five meetings beginning in early November. The final committee meeting was held Dec. 15.

The group's mission was simply to explore the options available to the community for continued use of the DakotaDome facility. No recommendation came out of the meetings, and the ideas that were kicked around weren't necessarily good news, in a financial sense, to the school district.

"The committee was well aware that any recommendations it made weren't binding; it was just a recommendation," said Vermillion School Board member Chris Girard at the school board's Jan. 11 meeting. Girard also served on the advisory committee. "We on the school board ultimately have to decide anything that we decide to do."

The committee explored several options. School district representatives introduced some, and university officials delivered some.

"The university came up with a figure, using the cost of repairs and maintenance that need to be done to the Dome, of around $8 million for the next 10 years," Girard said.

A formula involving the city and the school district was used to determine how much each should contribute towards that amount.

"Using a cost split of that $8 million, with the university taking two-thirds of the cost, and then the district taking one-sixth and the city taking one-sixth would make it a one-third, two-thirds partnership, with us and the city being the one-third," Girard said. "That boiled down to a payment of $88,000 a year for the next 15 years, which came out to a total cost of about $1.3 million."

The Vermillion School District attempted to negotiate an annual payment based on what the university receives for hosting the yearly South Dakota high school football championships.

"For those six games, the South Dakota High School Activities Association pays $27,500 to use the Dome, so we felt that was a fairly viable basis for an agreement for us to pay four or five games in the Dome," Girard said. "We also threw out an option of going up to as much as $50,000 per year as a payment to use the Dome, with an agreement that we would have to have more than just the varsity football games there – we would have to also play JV games there, and maybe have a couple track events there and get a little more use out of the Dome if we were going to be paying more."

A final proposal the committee agreed to recommend to all parties involved calls for the school district making a capital investment in the DakotaDome of between $500,000 and $700,000. The city would match that amount, meaning the total community investment in the facility would be between $1 million and $1.5 million.

"That could be used towards the purchase of new turf, or whatever they (the university) deemed appropriate to use it for," Girard said, "and there was some discussion about possibly also having a yearly payment in addition to that, but no figure was derived for that yearly payment."

She said that university officials were not "extremely receptive" to most of those ideas. "They were really quite stuck on the $88,000 payment, or, they felt if a capital investment was going to be made, it really kind of needed to be upwards of about $2 million (between the school district and the city) to use the facility."

Girard reiterated that the committee's role was not to make a final decision regarding a DakotaDome usage agreement, and therefore, the people serving on the body have not offered a recommendation.

She noted that, just as the university based its figures on estimates of needed upgrades to the DakotaDome; the school district also discussed the needs for improvement to its facilities that are commonly used by the USD.

"That was ultimately not chosen to be used," Girard said.  "…We can build our own facility for $750,000, but we would be playing outside."

"They (the university) also chose not to address the rest of the facilities of ours that they use?" asked Matt Lavin, a member of the school board.

"We did talk about that a little bit. Jason (Huska, VHS dean of students) shared some information about the hours of usage – I believe, if I remember correctly, that we ultimately use facilities on the campus up to about 40 hours total over the course of the whole year, and I believe that figure includes football games and the use of Slagle Hall," Girard said. "He (Huska) had some figures that they (the university) had already used our facilities well over 100 hours and he had stopped counting.

"So, it was clearly not equal," she said. "They (USD) use our track, they use our gyms, the commons, the fine arts center, for lots of different activities. But it was not worked in to this proposal at all."

"The proposal of $88,000 did have them splitting the cost of part of us upgrading our track," said School Board President Mark Bottolfson, noting that USD's proposal for the school district's use of the DakotaDome, in pure dollars, exceeds $90,000.

"In essence, they gave us a credit back for use of the track, and then they agreed that any repairs or upgrades that needed to be made to the (high school) track, they would split the costs with us half and half," Girard said.

Earlier that evening, a representative of a company that builds outdoor sports stadiums addressed the board (see related story). Bottolfson said one reason for his appearance at the meeting is the still rather unpredictable circumstances regarding the use of the DakotaDome.

"That one reason  … for a doing a little bit more investigating into going our own avenue," he said. "We're going to have to have a place to play football and do other things in the fall, and not that I want to build our own stadium – I'd just as soon stay in the Dome and play inside – but we just simply don't have the resources to spend a lot of extra money over what it would cost to do this on our own."

"We did share with all members of the committee our five year capital outlay plan," Girard said. "We shared that we are working with very limited revenue in that fund source, and that if we were to go into this kind of agreement (offered by the university for use of the DakotaDome) that would mean there would be that many projects that we would have to delay.

"We know we have roofs that we have to replace; we have other things that we have to take care of. We have to do what is fiscally sound for the district," she said.

"It needs to be pointed out that we as a school district really want to remain playing football in the Dome, and that's what we are working towards," Superintendent Mark Froke said. "But there comes a point where you have to make a decision, like Chris said, as to what is best for the school district from a fiscal standpoint as well as how the taxpayers feel that there dollars are being used.

"That's what we are looking at," he said, "but clearly we would like to keep playing football in the Dome; it's the finest facility for football in the state, and we would like to continue being there."

Froke noted that there have been no arrangements for further negotiations involving use of the DakotaDome.

"That doesn't mean that that can't happen; I don't think we want to close the door on that," he said, "but our contract has run out. If we're not going to play football in the Dome this fall, we have to have another facility to play football in. That's why we are looking at those different avenues. The time for final decisions is upon us, but I don't think the door is closed for further discussions. I certainly invite that and encourage it."

No decision was made after Girard shared the committee's facts and figures with the board.

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