by CHRIS ROGERS
Sometimes, making everyone happy is impossible, but Winona State University (WSU) may have finally found a location for a new NCAA baseball field that comes close. Late last Friday, WSU announced plans to build a collegiate baseball field at Minnesota State College - Southeast Technical's (Southeast Tech) Winona campus. The announcement comes after over a year of public debate over a proposal to build a field at Bambenek Fields in Lake Park, and after WSU officials spent months searching for a different spot that would fit a regulation field, WSU's budget, and Winonans' expectations.
The proposed site is a triangular piece of land east of Southeast Tech's main building on Old Homer Road. The land is already owned by the state college and so building a WSU field there would not remove any land from the tax rolls. Losing taxable land is a perennial concern for some city leaders, and Winonans who supported building a field in Lake Park often argued that any other location WSU might find would require taking private land out of the local tax base. In addition to avoiding that concern, the proposed site already has ample parking. The site is far-flung from WSU's campus, but it could be worse. WSU President Scott Olson was pleased the university did not have to look outside Winona.
"It's great to have a spot where all of the stars seemed to have lined up," said WSU President Scott Olson.
Southeast Tech President Dorothy Duran was pleased about the deal, as well, describing it as an expansion of existing partnerships between the sister schools. WSU provides Southeast Tech with a variety of administrative services — information technology, human resources, and institutional research — along with use of WSU's fitness facilities and student health care services. In exchange for the right to build the new ballfield, Southeast Tech will pay less for those services. Southeast Tech will compensate WSU through the use of Southeast Tech land, explained Southeast Tech Chief Financial Officer Mike Kroening.
Duran said that while Southeast Tech does have plans to add buildings to its campus in the mid- to long-term future, the campus has other land available for that purpose. In the college's 2008 campus plan, Southeast Tech leaders planned on using part of the proposed baseball field site to construct rain gardens, part of the college's plan to develop "small but visible sustainability initiatives." The school recently launched a planning process to update that campus plan.
WSU still needs to complete soil tests to ensure the soil at the site is suitable for construction — it might require compaction — and design work to determine how the field, dugouts, and stands would be laid out. However, the university officials are confident the site is suitable, and stated in their announcement that WSU will construct a 700-seat baseball field at the site. "Barring some unforeseen factor that would prevent it, we are going to do this," Olson said.
Cost estimates have not been prepared for the facility yet, but Olson expects it to be similar in cost to the $3 million plan for a field at Lake Park.
City Council member Allyn Thurley voiced his support for WSU's decision at Monday night's City Council meeting. In the past, Thurley also supported a WSU baseball field at Lake Park.
In 2014, WSU proposed converting one of the city-owned softball fields at Bambenek Fields in Lake Park into a shared field that would be used for WSU baseball during collegiate baseball season and could be used for city league softball and other sports during the summer. However, city residents and City Council members were divided over the deal. Some loved it. Some saw it as a WSU takeover of part of Lake Park. Last December, Olson withdrew the proposal. He and his staff seriously eyed Gabrych Park — a city-owned baseball field in the East End — but that site would not have been large enough to accommodate a NCAA regulation-sized field without taking over an adjacent city street, something Olson thought would have been unpopular among neighbors. Then WSU met privately with city Port Authority officials to discuss buying city-owned land in the Riverbend Industrial Park, a complex of retail and industrial businesses east of Winona Health. Port Authority officials nixed that idea, saying they wanted to save the land for industry. Instead they attempted to revive the Lake Park proposal, urging the City Council to invite WSU to develop a field there. In interviews after that proposal, Olson indicated he would be wary of taking such an offer, even if the City Council made it, and in a private meeting, told Mayor Mark Peterson that WSU was not interested.
"We never wanted to be divisive in the community; it's good to have a location that won't be divisive," Olson said, reflecting on the controversy over the Lake Park proposal. He continued, describing the long search for a suitable site, "It's been an interesting exercise in problem solving, and in a way [the solution] was sitting right in front of all of us all along."
A construction timeline has not been developed, but Olson said he was hopeful the field could be built in 2016 and ready for the 2017 baseball season.
"We're really excited not just for our student athletes, but also all the students who will be able to use it and the community we hope can use it," said WSU Athletic Director Eric Schoh. "In the end I think it's a really great location," he added.
The new field will open up possibilities for redeveloping Loughrey Field, WSU's current baseball field at Sarnia and Winona streets. The university has already purchased some of the neighboring houses on Winona Street, and is currently developing a new campus master plan that will spell out the university's plans for the space. Right now, WSU is still gathering ideas for Loughrey Field's redevelopment from students and staff, Olson said. "I can't say what it might be, but it's fun to think about," he stated.
WSU has a star rugby program. The women's team just won the state championship for the ninth year in a row. Olson said that WSU plans to relocate the rugby pitch to a nearby field at Southeast Tech.
WSU will host a public meeting to discuss the plans, answer citizens' questions, and solicit feedback on Tuesday, October 13, at 7 p.m. in the main lobby of Southeast Tech's main building, 1250 Homer Road, Winona.