The University of St. Thomas has received a $75 million donation from Lee and Penny Anderson toward design and construction of a shared Division I hockey and basketball facility on its St. Paul campus, west of the Anderson Parking facility off Cretin and Grand avenues.
The goal is to host some 65 to 70 men’s and women’s games annually while elevating the university’s profile well beyond state boundaries, and even nationally.
“We’re not there yet but this is a huge step forward,” said Rob Vischer, president of the university, in an interview Monday. “The move to Division I athletics is a key part of that. It’s not the only part of it by any means … but it strengthens our alumni engagement, and it strengthens our visibility outside of Minnesota.”
With the latest donation, the Andersons will have contributed roughly $140 million toward the university that their grandchild attends and other relatives have attended. Lee Anderson was the owner and chairman of the Minnesota-based API Group, a holding company for more than 40 construction-related and fire-protection firms. He sold his stake in API in 2019 for a reported $3 billion.
It’s the largest donation to any university in Minnesota and the ninth largest to college athletics nationally.
St. Thomas, which is entering its second full year in Division I athletics, will tear down three existing buildings on the south campus — the 1890s-era Cretin Hall dormitory, the 1960s-era McCarthy Gym and an 1890s-era service center — to make room for a hockey arena seating some 4,000 spectators. The arena will be designed to convert into a basketball facility for 5,000 fans.
The new facility, which could be under construction in 2024, will also host practice courts and a second sheet of ice, also intended for practice, as well as support services such as locker rooms, weight rooms and offices.
Construction would mark the first time in the university’s history that St. Thomas maintains a hockey arena on campus. That said, the likelihood of tearing down not one but three history-laden buildings will likely raise questions with historic preservationists in St. Paul, which is known for its efforts to preserve architecture from certain eras.
“One of the reasons I came to St. Thomas and stayed at St. Thomas is because we’re a university that’s proud of our history, but we’re not paralyzed by our history,” said Vischer, who has been with the university for 18 years.
More fundraising ahead
The St. Thomas men’s and women’s teams currently play hockey at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and basketball at the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex on the St. Paul campus, which is home to the first-floor Schoenecker Arena. The athletic center will continue to host intramurals, on-campus recreation and volleyball.
Vischer said the $75 million donation from the Anderson family jumpstarts fundraising toward a $131 million fundraising goal. Design and construction of the new facility is likely to reach a $143 million price-tag, and equipment, technology and utilities could inflate the overall cost to as much as $175 million.
“This is a huge kick-off toward that fundraising goal,” Vischer said. “We do have some fundraising work to do, but we’re confident we’ll get it done. Assuming we do, we’re looking to start construction in 2024 and open in fall 2025.”
The decision to locate hockey and basketball on campus completes a search that began more than a year ago. In February, the Town and Country Club on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul rejected the university’s unsolicited $61 million offer to purchase its historic St. Paul golf course for hockey, baseball, softball and parking.
The university then focused on Highland Bridge, the former Ford Motor Co. manufacturing campus in Highland Park, where it floated the likelihood of the same series of new athletic facilities. In July, the university removed hockey from its list of possibilities there, while keeping plans afloat for new baseball and softball facilities in the southeast corner of the development, west of Cleveland Avenue.
“As we looked more closely at Highland Bridge, we didn’t think it was the right location, and pivoted,” said Phil Esten, the university’s athletic director, in an interview Monday.
Esten said that the Highland District Council, a neighborhood organization, could expect a status update on plans for new baseball and softball facilities within a month.
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