The MSU sports dome appears to be losing its “seasonal” designation

Nov. 6 — Building codes say Minnesota State University’s colossal sports bladder is a “seasonal structure” and is scheduled to rise each fall and deflate each spring — and operate for no more than six months a year.

However, for the first three years of its existence, the Maverick All-Sports Dome was a year-round facility on the southeast side of campus. And university officials hope it stays that way.

“We looked at the city: what would it take to let it stand?” said Paul Corcoran, associate vice president for facilities management at MSU.

According to Mankato building and fire inspectors, the answer was the addition of a fire detection system and a fire suppression system, said Corcoran, who commended city officials for their willingness to seek a solution.

First, MSU asked for a pandemic-related exemption from the requirement that the dome be deflated and bagged six months out of the year. Companies specializing in air-launched domes have been less interested in doing the labour-intensive work, which requires 50 to 60 employees working in close proximity, during a period of social distancing.

Even the Minnesota Department of Justice, which had provided labor to unroll and restore sports domes’ massive fabric roofs and cables six months later, halted work at facilities across the state. With only one company bidding, spring 2020 costs were much higher than anticipated — an estimated $75,000 to dismantle and store the dome, and $122,000 to rebuild it the following fall.

COVID also eliminated the revenue MSU was counting on to cover those costs when youth sports groups stopped renting the facility. And the cost of keeping the dome inflated for another six months was barely $20,000, mostly for electricity. City officials agreed to the pandemic exemption provided the facility remained unoccupied and unused for half the year.

While the desire to convert the dome into a year-round facility is primarily motivated by cost savings, removing the “seasonal” classification would allow for 12-month use. The Dome is extraordinarily busy during the half year of current availability, with time split between MSU intercollegiate teams, student clubs and intramural sports, as well as rentals by youth sports organizations and other outside groups such as Bethany Lutheran College Athletics.

The $5.5 million dome—1.5 football fields in size and designed for full-field soccer, lacrosse and soccer—can be divided into smaller fields for multiple simultaneous uses.

“The dome is used for baseball and softball practices in Bethany as early as 5 a.m. and for recreational programs on MSU’s campus until 11:45 p.m.,” said Dan Benson, MSU’s media relations director.

The Mavericks soccer, football, softball, and baseball teams rely on the dome for practice, camps, and clinics. And although the dome has no spectator seats, softball games and soccer games are held here in bad weather. MSU students use the dome for recreational and club sports such as soccer, lacrosse, rugby, ultimate frisbee and baseball, Benson said.

A long list of local community organizations have rented the dome, including youth soccer, softball, baseball, and lacrosse teams. High school and college teams from Mapleton, St. Peter, New Ulm, and St. Paul have used it. People have even rented part of the dome for birthday parties.

From November 1, 2021 to April 30 of this year, the plant recorded more than 1,900 operating hours. All but 300 of those hours were from January through April.

Rick Straka, vice president of finance and administration, said he expects those hours of use to increase somewhat with 12 months of availability, with most of the additional use occurring in October and May and during late summer rainy weather. Not so much in June, July and early August.

“We have no plans to air condition it,” Straka said.

Still, for outdoor teams in the Minnesota climate, the dome can be a season savior. Straka referred to the miserable weather last spring.

“I don’t think our women’s softball team has played an outdoor (home) game,” he said.

However, the primary motivation remains financial. MSU officials estimated the annual dismantling/assembly cost at $50,000 when they proposed adding the dome to the campus.

“Now it looks like the cost will be four to five times that,” Straka said.

Corcoran works to complete custom fire protection system designs in hopes of never incurring these bills. If approved by the city, they could be installed as early as next summer.

“Because everything is custom, it takes time,” Corcoran said, although he’s optimistic about the progress being made. “We’re very close.”

And Straka said the financing shouldn’t be a problem. It is estimated that the upfront cost of fire detection and suppression equipment will be offset in five years or less by the savings of not having to hire crews for the inflation and deflation work.

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