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Visit Duluth group exploring idea of new indoor sports complex

DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth's often-lengthy winters, combined with a shortage of indoor sports space, can make it difficult to host tournaments or expand sports opportunities for young Duluth athletes. "Our winters and our springs are so long that we...

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DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth's often-lengthy winters, combined with a shortage of indoor sports space, can make it difficult to host tournaments or expand sports opportunities for young Duluth athletes.

"Our winters and our springs are so long that we can't get outside, so being able to bring in a clinic (at which) kids could learn how to play a little better ... or even bringing in a tournament where you're bringing in tourism dollars into the city -- we don't have a place to do that. We can't even really think about doing something like that in the appropriate venue," said Duluth Parks and Recreation Commissioner Andy Holak, referring to sports such as soccer, baseball and lacrosse.

To alleviate that problem, Visit Duluth -- the city's tourism promotion organization -- has created a sports advisory group that has been considering the possibility of building an indoor multisport facility in Duluth that could provide turf fields and courts for sports teams to use during their winter offseason.

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The Duluth Sports Council began meeting in April to consider the broader picture of attracting sports events and tournaments to Duluth, and its members agree that an indoor facility is long overdue, said Holak, who also is a member of the Sports Council.

In addition to bringing tourists to Duluth for tournaments at the facility, it could be used by local sports teams and provide a new source of revenue for the city through rentals.

"It's a win-win, I think, for everyone. You're providing recreation opportunities, but you're also providing a potential stream of revenue for the city, if it's done correctly. I don't see how we couldn't do it here. I think of any city in the country that needs an indoor facility in the winter, Duluth, Minnesota, does. Our winters are long and challenging," he said.

Indoor sports facilities exist in the Twin Cities and other areas of Minnesota, showing that it's financially feasible to construct and operate them, Holak said. He pointed out that an indoor facility like the one being considered by the Sports Council doesn't exist anywhere in Northeastern Minnesota and could serve as a regional hub for both Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

"It's a dual benefit with investing in current citizens, people who live here, and also investing in something that will bring in tourism dollars," he said. "It serves a dual purpose."

City's position

While the tourism aspect of an indoor sports facility is important, Holak said his role as a Parks and Recreation commissioner is to ensure the city provides opportunities for kids to be active. Constructing an indoor facility would be an investment in the community, he said.

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"There's really not a lot more important thing you can do than investing in our kids, the youth of the community. This is one way we can do that," he said. "The amount of time we have in the cold, winter months, I think it's important and it's something that is really long overdue."

The city's support and partnership is key to moving the project forward, he said.

"I think it's going to take the city really saying, 'This is a priority and we want to make this happen,'" he said.

Anne Bubacz Hamann, Visit Duluth's director of sports, presented the indoor facility idea to the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission during its Dec. 9 meeting. Although she's worked for Visit Duluth for 10 years, she has focused specifically on marketing Duluth as a sports destination for the past two years because it has "boomed and needed its own department."

"I have felt the amount of phone calls I'm getting just from residents in general, tournament directors ... parents, the local people who will stop in to talk to me -- the No. 1 topic they want to talk about is a sports facility, something that can be utilized year-round," she said.

Holak noted during the meeting that the city could consider it as a quality-of-life improvement opportunity for residents.

Bubacz Hamann explained, "It's not just a tourism piece, it's a residential and community issue."

Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, said during the meeting that the city wouldn't be able to take on the entire financial burden of constructing an indoor sports facility -- so it hasn't moved forward on compiling a list of possible locations for it.

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"And so, the city has not championed this project -- not because we don't see the need and not because we are not in support of it -- but because we see that there will need to be a broader community-wide effort to make this so, just as was the case with the Heritage Hockey Center," he said.

If construction of an indoor facility moves forward, the city would be a "co-leader" on the project, he said.

Feasibility study

A next step in the process could be a feasibility study, costing an estimated $28,000, but Visit Duluth may need to hold off for a year or two due to limited funding available for the study, Bubacz Hamann said.

Visit Duluth received a proposal for the feasibility study from the Huddle Up Group, based in Phoenix, that has completed feasibility studies in other cities of similar size to Duluth, Bubacz Hamann said.

The organization is willing to work with the city on the items to include in a feasibility study in Duluth, she said. The study could include an inventory of Duluth's sport facilities, tourism, funding sources for a new indoor facility and possible locations. A feasibility study would be a step in the right direction, Holak said during the meeting. However, in the end, economics will be a large factor in whether the project moves from feasibility study to construction, he said.

Parks and Recreation Commission President Edwin Hall called for Parks and Visit Duluth staff to consider the study proposal together and provide an update to the commission at some point in the coming months.

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