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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)


In a town where youth sports are king, Blaine parents and coaches say they're facing a pressing quandary: Where's all the gym space?

For local volleyball and basketball enthusiasts, it's not at the National Sports Center. The massive state-owned sports complex has long focused on hockey and field sports like soccer.

And it's not at a community center, which Blaine voters have twice declined to build.

But now signs of change are afoot, with two groups seeking to meet what they describe as a growing demand for hard-court gym facilities in the north metro.

The National Sports Center has announced plans to expand into court sports for the first time in its nearly 30-year history. And just down the road, a group of parents involved in youth sports is eyeing property next to City Hall to build an indoor facility — dubbed the "Blaine Athletic Complex" — with five hard courts and a turf field.

"Both basketball and volleyball have grown significantly," said Barclay Kruse, spokesman for the National Sports Center. "There is definitely demand for court space."

Some officials in the city of 64,000 wonder if there's enough of an appetite to support both the Sports Center's new venture and the proposed athletic complex. National reports from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association show a steady decline in most U.S. team sports participation, including volleyball and basketball.

"These groups come in and say there is all this demand," City Council Member Andy Garvais said. "But I haven't seen any numbers."

But local sports groups say a dearth of gym space has them fighting for court openings at churches and schools. It's often pushed them beyond the city limits in search of places to play and practice.

"There's just not enough space," said Chad Johnson, a former board member with Blaine Youth Basketball. "We are limited to one to two practices a week, and we drive all over the place."

National Sports Center officials say those who are playing are playing more, spurring demand for court time. Their plan is to rent out the new courts and charge registration fees for tournaments, leagues, camps and open gym time. An adult basketball tournament is already on the books for June.

Crews have been installing two portable hardwood courts in the existing Sport Expo Center, painting fresh lines and getting them ready for play. The expanse of beechwood flooring can fit two basketball and three volleyball courts. It can also be removed for major events, like the Schwan's USA Cup international youth soccer tournament.

If all goes well, the center may develop a larger, multi-court facility on its 660-acre campus in the future.

"We are viewing this as we are testing the waters," Kruse said. "Our two biggest sports — soccer and hockey — our total numbers are flat. That's one reason that we are very interested in court sports."

'We need this'

A mile away from the Sports Center, at City Hall, supporters of the indoor athletic complex project want to lease a 5 2/3-acre parcel from the city for $1, a lease model that's similar to the arrangement between the city and Fogerty Ice Arena.

The proposed recreation facility would be used mostly for sports like basketball, volleyball, soccer and baseball.

"We need this," said Johnson, who is among the basketball parents helping to spearhead the project. "Blaine is a big area, with a lot of kids and young families who are big in their sports, and there's just not enough facilities."

Proponents of the $8.9 million project made their pitch last month at a City Council workshop. They plan to seek conduit debt financing through the city. Nonprofits use such a bonding mechanism to get lower interest rates. It doesn't put the city at financial risk, according to Blaine staffers.

If the venture failed, Blaine officials say they would have to decide whether to purchase the building since it would sit on city property.

Some City Council members asked whether the group has considered working in concert with the National Sports Center. Johnson said they had talked with Sports Center officials about a potential partnership, which didn't pan out.

But he said the proposed complex is already attracting support from various soccer, baseball, volleyball and basketball groups within Blaine and beyond.

"All of these associations are coming out of the woodwork, calling us and wanting to get time booked in this facility," Johnson said.

That includes Maple Grove-based Minnesota Select Volleyball Club, one of the largest in the state. The club leases space in Maple Grove and needs more courts to grow, said director Scott Jackson.

"We turned away nearly 100 kids at our last tryouts," he said.

The Blaine group says it hopes to bring the project back for a City Council vote in the coming weeks, with the goal of breaking ground later this year. City officials say some key questions about the proposal remain, including more details on the demand for courts.

"Is there a market for two of these types of facilities?" said Erik Thorvig, Blaine's economic development coordinator. "Given the fact it's on city land and the city is involved in it, we want to make sure we vet it fully before anything goes forward."

Hannah Covington · 612-673-4751

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May 16, 2018


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