U’s outdoor track needs millions in renovations

Minnesota’s outdoor facility is 20 years old and in need of some major repairs before the Gophers host the 2015 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Megan Ryan

The outdoor track facility near the Bierman athletics building was a swimming pool Monday afternoon.

Ducks waded through puddles while the Gophers men and women’s track and field teams prepared for upcoming road meets.

Minnesota hasn’t hosted an outdoor track meet since 2009 because its lone outdoor facility isn’t fit for the task.

The outdoor track is riddled with fissures that have cracked through patching repairs. When it rains, mounds as large as three feet form and depressions in the rubber surface create small puddles.

It’s a problem that has coaches and administration calling for a multimillion-dollar renovation.

“As soon as it starts to rain at all, some areas are better suited for floating rubber duckies than having competitive track,” head men’s track and field coach Steve Plasencia said.

The University built the facility, then state-of-the-art, in 1990 for the Olympic festival. Now 22 years old, the track has run into foundational problems as early as 1999, when it got its first repairs, said Scott Ellison, the University’s associate athletics director for facilities.

The track is currently used as a practice facility for the Minnesota teams, but in 2009, coaches and administrators decided it could no longer support hosting meets.

“It comes down to money, as usual with these projects,” Ellison said.

If the track only needed a typical resurfacing, the renovation would have already been completed for the fairly low price of $1 million, Ellison said.

But the problem sinks much deeper below the surface.

Because the foundation of the track is unstable, water pressure forces asphalt to shift, forming the cracks and depressions.

“We’ve had hydrologists, we’ve had engineers; we’ve had ground water experts; we’ve had everybody, and nobody really can seem to pinpoint exactly what the problem is,” Ellison said. “We’ve got different theories that float around.”

One theory is that the ground beneath the track became unsteady after the city built the bridge on Fifth Street Southeast near the Bierman athletics building.

Another theory involves the old residential foundation the track sits on. The sewage from older houses ran straight into the storm drainage system. Although the drains were capped before the track was built, contractors suspect the plumbing may have come unscrewed and contributed to the flooding.

Plans fall through

The University once had plans to break ground on a new track in May 2009 and finish by October of that year, in time for the 2010 season.

But construction never began, as the administration announced a University-wide moratorium to reduce debt after the economy faltered.

The moratorium meant that no University facilities could be built unless the department identified all funding prior to breaking ground.

For a track program almost completely reliant on University funds, it made plans to build a new outdoor facility nearly impossible.

“There’s probably some people out there that you would think would give to a new track stadium but probably not enough to pay for the entire project,” Ellison said. “We would have to be creative about how we bridge that gap between the fundraised dollars and the debt that the athletic department would have to assume for the project.”

In 2009, the project would’ve cost about $4 million. With inflation, the project today would cost an estimated $4 to $6 million, head women’s coach Matt Bingle said.

Ellison said funding the project should be a “balancing act” in which the University only helps if the track team fronts a portion of that $4 to $6 million.

But both Plasencia and Bingle expressed concern about the lack of opportunities to raise the money needed.

“We’re always trying to hear word of a big donor that might be willing to help out with the project,” Plasencia said.

With the track in disrepair and no solid plan for its renovation set, Minnesota had to turn down the opportunity to host the 2013 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

The last time the Gophers hosted the meet was in 2003, when the men’s team won.

Minnesota is scheduled again to host the event in 2015. For the Gophers to be ready by then, the new track would likely have to be completed by summer or fall 2014.

While the current freshmen on the track and field teams may still experience a conference championship home meet their senior year, senior star Hassan Mead never will.

“That’s one of those experiences not many people get,” Mead said. “That’s one of those things you wish you could have, but we only have four years to compete here. Unfortunately, we were in the wrong period.”

Benefits of renovating

The track teams have wish lists of what they’d like the new outdoor track to include. While an even running surface is essential, other amenities like a new scoreboard and more seating would make the facility the premier track in the state.

But Ellison said the University may be unable to provide more than the necessities.

“It all depends on money,” he said.

While a renovated outdoor track would be expensive, it may save money in the long run, as it would cut down on travel costs.

Women’s track and field and cross country combined to have the fifth-largest travel budget of all sports at the University last fiscal year — about $283,000, according to the NCAA financial reports. Men’s track and field and cross country ranks sixth with about a $266,000 budget. Both budgets are more than twice that of the men’s hockey team.

“We have to travel a lot to get competition,” Bingle said. “It’s expensive, and … it is very taxing on the student-athlete. Traveling is not easy.”

Bingle said he also hopes the University can host not only collegiate meets but also rent out the facility for competitions such as the state high school championships.

Ellison said hosting collegiate and high school meets would bring in an estimated $20,000 to $30,000, barely skimming the surface of the overall cost of the renovation.

Having a new outdoor track facility would help recruiting for the track teams as well. Beyond prospective athletes, though, the track is open for use by all University students and groups, such as the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the Ultimate Disc Club.

“It truly is a University asset because other groups on campus do use it,” Ellison said.

Recent changes in University leadership may also affect whether and when the renovation is scheduled.

Marc Ryan, senior associate athletics director and sport administrator for track and field, said University President Eric Kaler and the new athletics director Norwood Teague will advance the outdoor track process rather than bury it under revenue sports issues.

“The priority that the president and the new athletic director put on facilities and the importance of facilities is just going to help all of our projects, including the track,” Ryan said.