VERMILLION — A new athletic arena at the University of South Dakota took a major step forward Wednesday thanks to a donation from Sanford Health that covers nearly half of the proposed $50 million endeavor.
In the first publicly-announced donation to the project, Sanford's $20 million gift should kick-start a fundraising effort to construct the 6,000-seat basketball and volleyball arena, according to athletic director David Sayler.
"It's the catalyst for what we see is an amazing future," Sayler said Wednesday while on the road for a fundraising trip to California.
"We'll be working hard with our donors to get this done."
Aside from the gift, Sanford Health will continue to serve as the exclusive sports medicine provider for USD for the next 15 years — a partnership that started in 2005. As part of Wednesday's announcement, Sanford will also support student scholarships and university faculty.
Sayler said he has no unofficial timetable on the arena project, but said he has additional donations totaling $9 million, with a portion pledged to the outdoor track facility.
"We don't have to raise all of it right away for all the projects. When we get money raised for one project, we'll start building," he said.
That day cannot come soon enough, Yankton native Jeremy Kudera said. An orthopedic surgeon at Yankton Medical Clinic and former USD men's basketball standout, Kudera is on the Howling Pack board of directors.
"It's great to be able to see the funding going in the right direction — something they really needed to jump-start things," he said. "An arena like this is a long time coming. The dome is a great place to play basketball, but when you're talking Division I, you need to keep pace."
The new facility, which will be connected to the south end of the Dome, would include a home for basketball and volleyball, as well as practice courts, coaches and administrative offices, a new training room, luxury boxes, and the Kinesiology and Sport Science (KSS) program.
A new arena, however, is not the only upcoming change to the USD athletic facility landscape.
The complete 2015 Master Plan for Athletic Facilities called for $70 million in construction projects — renovations to the Dome, a new basketball/volleyball arena, and track and soccer complexes. USD received permission last year from the state Board of Regents to move forward with, for those to be directly impacted by having a new home, there was excitement surrounding Wednesday's news.
"It's the next step to it becoming a reality. It's definitely going to happen, it's just a matter of time now," USD volleyball coach Matt Houk said. "It's exciting for all of us."
Houk was at Wisconsin-Green Bay when the school began construction on a new arena, and said that project "added some buzz" to the campus.
"The kids are excited that things are going on," he said. "The fact that we can say to recruits, 'This is going to be your home,' it shows an absolute commitment from everyone."
That's the next step in the phase for USD: Raising the remaining $30-35 million.
"As I see it, the challenge has now been issued to USD alumni and friends to match the Sanford gift and make our vision a reality," USD president Jim Abbott said in a release.
With nearly half of the project committed, Sayler said that should alleviate concerns from donors.
"That's the key. A lot of the discussions we've had before were about the dollar amount, that it might be overwhelming," Sayler said. "Now we can honestly say the end is in sight."
Kudera agreed, saying that it was only natural for early donors to be skeptical of a project that was still looking for significant financial backing.
"When almost half of this is taken care of, it's more of a realistic goal," he said.
"Hopefully we can have some donors help finish this thing up."
Wednesday's gift was similar to the ones Sanford made with North Dakota State two years ago for $10 million for facility improvements, and the one last week with South Dakota State for $10 million for an indoor practice facility and human performance center.
When it comes to upcoming construction in Vermillion, however, the finish line is in sight, Sayler said.
"This whole project has united everyone in our department," he said. "We're all on board because we know this will benefit everyone.
"From administrators on down to athletes, it's a great thing."
Transitioning from a spacious environment like the DakotaDome to a new, more intimate arena will certainly take some time to adjustment, but in the end it will be worth it, Kudera said.
"The dome has its own home court advantage — it's tougher to shoot in there and it can get really loud.
But a true basketball arena has more advantages," he said. "David Sayler and everyone else realizes that, so I think this will be a great thing."
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck