USD, school board find common ground on DakotaDome

It appears that the Vermillion School District and the University of South Dakota are close to reaching an agreement that will call for the district to pay a bit more than it has in the past to use the DakotaDome.

In exchange, the school district will receive greater use of the athletic facility.

The latest set of financial figures offered by the university calls for the school district to make a $35,000 payment for use of the DakotaDome during the first year of the new agreement. In the second year, the school district would pay an additional $1,500, or a total of $36,500, to gain access to the facility.

"And we would pay an additional $1,000 if the third year is needed," said Vermillion School Board President Mark Bottolfson at the board's regular meeting Monday night.

"This agreement has caused quite a bit of talk over the last three months in the community, to say the least," he said. "I believe it started back in December with a committee of about nine or 10 people together to go over the agreement."

That committee made up of representatives of USD, the school district, and the Vermillion community held five meetings beginning last November to explore the facility use agreements between schools and universities and colleges in other communities, and the possibility of local entities paying yearly fees or making capital investments in the DakotaDome in exchange for its extended use.

"That's kind of the direction that we're going now," said Bottolfson at Monday's school board meeting. "That (extended use) being maybe playing more games, including ninth grade and JV games at the Dome, and maybe a couple track meets. The specifics of that haven't been drawn up yet. That's still under consideration."

The committee had explored the costs involved in another long-term agreement between the university and the school district. The final figures it initially arrived at compelled the school board to begin thinking about constructing its own outdoor field for the high school football program.

The new plan offered by USD to the district was first introduced to board members for their review by Superintendent Mark Froke approximately 10 days ago. It calls for a two-year, short-term agreement with an option for a third year, and includes expanding the district's use of the DakotaDome.

"This time, a shorter-term agreement has come in front of us. It is a two-year agreement to kind of test the waters to see how extended usage may or may not work," Bottolfson said. "At that point, we thought that maybe two years was a little short, so we asked for a third year option. Mark went back and met with Rich Van Den Hul (vice president of finance and administration at the University of South Dakota) last week, and he agreed that such an option could be put in place if needed."

Bottolfson said that as the school district "tests the waters" of operating under the short-term agreement that's about to finalized, the district and the university can hopefully eventually hash out a long-term agreement for use of the DakotaDome.

"If at the end of two years we don't like the way it is turning out, we can have the option of having a third year so we can plan on building a stadium on our own," he said.

Bottolfson noted the initial proposal that came from the committee's contained "a great discrepancy between where we could afford to be and where the university wanted us to be as far as financing to stay playing at the Dome.

"Both sides, I think, have come a long ways, and personally, it would be my recommendation to give Mark the okay to go ahead and develop this extended usage agreement for final approval," he said.

The board authorized Froke to work with university officials to draft an agreement. It will be presented for formal consideration at the school board's March 22 meeting.

The latest set of financial figures offered by the university calls for the school district to make a $35,000 payment for use of the DakotaDome during the first year of the new agreement. In the second year, the school district would pay an additional $15,000, or a total of $50,000, to gain access to the facility.

"And we would pay an additional $1,000 if the third year is needed," Bottolfson said.

The DakotaDome cooperative use advisory committee's mission was to explore the options available to the community for continued use of the DakotaDome facility when it met late last year. Options explored by the committee included:

• Option A – This option would recognize the combined efforts of USD, VSD and the City of Vermillion for a total commitment of $8,027,115 which represents the estimated cost of improvements to the DakotaDome over the next 10 years. With this option the contributions would be: City of Vermillion one-sixth or $89,190, Vermillion School District one-sixth or $89,190 and USD two-thirds or $356,761 annually for 15 years with annual adjustments indexed to an inflation factor.
• Option B – This is a flat rate proposal of $50,000 per year for 15 years. Cumulative cost over 15 years is $750,000.
• Option C – This proposal of $55,000 for year-one is increased by 6 percent annually for 15 years. Cumulative cost over 15 years is $1,280,173.34.
• Option D – This financial model suggested the Vermillion School District purchase the "turf" in return for the facility use. The estimated cost of the turf (2009) is $900,000. Using $900,000 for 15 years at 5 percent interest the estimated annual payment would be $85,406.50. The cumulative cost over 15 years is $1,281,086.02.
• Option E – The proposal is an option to allow each organization to provide their individual facility.
• Option F – This proposal encouraged a formal mediation process by hiring an outside service.

The committee's recommendation called for an initial capital investment of $1 million to $2 million from the Vermillion School District and the city of Vermillion be made for a term of 15 years, with an annual "use charge" to be determined by all parties to the agreement. The Vermillion School Board balked at those figures, and district and university officials agreed to continue discussing options.

Froke and Jason Huska, dean of students at Vermillion High School, met with USD Athletic Director Joel Nielsen last week.

"We reviewed the ideas for access to the Dome," Froke said, "and I must say that Joel has a very good attitude along those lines; he wants to make things work out, so we talked about a number of things."

Discussion topics included expanding the school district's access to the Dome to include not only high school varsity football, but also junior varsity football, seventh- and eighth-grade football games, and perhaps also ninth-grade football. The district will also seek, if schedules allow, additional high school football practices in the Dome.

Froke, Huska and Nielsen also discussed the possibility of holding an early season indoor varsity track meet in the facility. "We thought that would be of great interest to area schools," Froke said, "and we'd also like to try to have a seventh- and eighth-grade track meet at the Dome, with occasional practices.

"There was also discussion about possibility hosting a basketball classic," he said. "Jason would try to promote that, and that was met with a positive attitude by Joel. We talked about the fact that the school would run it – the university would open up the doors, turn on the lights, and make sure that everything was going, but we would run the events."

USD and Vermillion School District officials also will likely talk about the district's access to the DakotaDome's swimming pool. "They (the university) are willing to discuss that item further, and they are particularly interested in the educational component. We opened up the door for discussions along those lines.

At the end of the short-term agreement, Froke said, the school board can evaluate how well the new agreement is working.

"We're at a point where we were looking to spend a significant amount of money," said Matt Lavin, a member of the school board, "either staying with the Dome for a long-term contract … or a significant amount of money developing our own facility. It's not that we couldn't have, but this allows us, for a period of time, a cooling off and seeing if we can get an arrangement that will work with the Dome.

"At the same time," he added, "if that didn't work out, we would have the breathing room to actually go to our community and really come up with something that we would be proud of."

"We could throw something together and have a field (of our own) for next year," Dave Stammer, school board member, said. "The question is whether that would meet the needs of our school and our community. Hastily building something right now, I don't think, is a very wise idea. I think we need a little bit of time to plan before we go ahead and build something on our own, so I support going into a short-term agreement."

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