Coffman’s faults offer guidance

The University must be vigilant and keep the Gophers stadium on track.

University officials and even die-hard fans knew the road to getting an on-campus stadium would be long and bumpy. But the wheels are turning, and now University administration and athletics officials must be cautious to avoid turning the stadium project into a repeat of the Coffman Union fiasco.

The benefits of an on-campus stadium are many, not the least of which is the fact that the University’s Metrodome contract expires in 2011. By that time, it is likely the Gophers would be the Dome’s only major tenant. In that case, paying for an on-campus stadium would be cheaper than staying downtown. But with the stadium’s proposed opening date steadily getting farther away, most recently moved from 2008 to 2009, Gophers fans might be justified in worrying about a suitable home for their team.

The biggest immediate worry is legislative approval of the project. The state Legislature must agree to pony up about 40 percent of the money for the project, an amount that will also steadily increase due to inflation. The sooner the University gets state approval, the better and cheaper the stadium will be.

Assuming the Legislature grants its approval, which might require a special session to which Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not committed, the University must then tread carefully. Coffman Union was closed from Nov. 1, 1999, through Jan. 22, 2003 – two years past its original reopening date and 50 percent over budget. Many students paying for the renovations got just two months of the original Coffman, not to see it again until four months before graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

Already pushing back the date for a new stadium by one year has increased its cost by $13 million. And while poor planning and going from a design-bid-build model to a design-build model contributed significantly to Coffman’s financial problems, those issues could crop up again during stadium construction.

University officials have promised that students will pay no more than a $50 per semester fee for the new stadium. If they want to stay within that parameter, they must now be expedient and prudent while planning this project. An on-campus stadium will benefit this University and its sense of community, but not if it becomes just another money pit that never gets built.