Dream facility inches closer to reality

Gary Wilson has desired a spectator-friendly cross country course for years; in Hugo, he may have found the perfect site.

Derek Wetmore

WomenâÄôs cross country head coach Gary Wilson has dreamed of a new cross country facility since 1982, when he visited Indiana UniversityâÄôs private course. Wednesday, that dream took a step toward becoming reality.

Wilson and Dave Percival met with the Parks Commission of Hugo, Minn., late Wednesday to discuss a 125-acre plot of land they hope to turn into a cross country facility.

The nine-member panel voted unanimously to take the next step in the process. Wilson and Percival will now design a cross country course, Wilson said.

Percival is the Roy Griak Invitational assistant meet director. His wife, Patti, ran for Wilson as a collegian in 1985-88.

Wilson and Percival told the board that, with no money from the city, the two hope to design and construct a course on the city-owned land. At the same time, theyâÄôd be working with the city at every juncture of the project to ensure the team and the city werenâÄôt âÄústepping on each otherâÄôs toes.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs cross country team currently trains and competes on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights, just north of the St. Paul campus.

Wilson said his ultimate vision is to take the plot of land in Hugo, which used to be a gravel field, and turn it into a common-use facility called âÄúIrish Meadows.âÄù

Located about a half an hour northeast of the GophersâÄô current course, both of the UniversityâÄôs cross country teams could use the course. However, with the already tight athletics department budget, Wilson said he will not be asking for any money from the University.

âÄúThis is not the U doing this,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúThis is Gary Wilson and Dave Percival with a dream of having a cross country course that can be used by everybody in the state. Cross country is a big deal in the state of Minnesota. WeâÄôve have great cross country runners out of here.âÄù

He added that Minnesota doesnâÄôt currently have a championship-caliber, spectator-friendly course. He hopes Irish Meadows could become that, not only for cross country, but for other sports as well.

In the short term, his plan is to run a course around the outside of the lot, but in the future he said the city may choose to invest money in the lot as well and add things like softball diamonds or soccer fields in the middle, Wilson said.

The course itself would also serve as a track for other colleges, high schools and recreational activities like cross country skiing in the winter.

Percival is a physical education teacher at a White Bear Lake, Minn., middle  school where the principal, Noel Schmidt, serves on the Hugo Parks Commission board.

Schmidt and Percival spoke about the idea several months ago, and when it wasnâÄôt quickly dismissed, Wilson said he and Percival began pursuing it.

City administrator Mike Ericson could not be reached for comment, but Wilson said he told the pair two months ago that it was a great idea and they should press on and set up a meeting with the board.

âÄúYou canâÄôt get anything done if you donâÄôt get to the table,âÄù Wilson said. âÄú[Schmidt] got us to the table and they were excited about it.âÄù

The next step is to assemble a planning committee to design the layout of the course so that it wonâÄôt interfere with any possible future structures or fields.

Wilson said their goal is to have planning approved by December and break ground in the spring of 2012. He said he hopes the first race will be held in the fall of 2013 or 2014, with the idea being that as soon as people see a spectator-friendly course, more people will want to donate time or resources to help improve it.

âÄúIf you build something thatâÄôs got a good foundation and you treat people right and you give them a facility that people can be proud of, then itâÄôs going to build on itself and get better and better as the years go on,âÄù Wilson said.

âÄúEverything is going to be gift-in-kind. If youâÄôve got a tractor or grass seed or time to come out and help or rake and hoe, weâÄôll take it. ItâÄôs going to be that kind of a grassroots cause,âÄù he said.

University of Wisconsin-MadisonâÄôs Zimmer Championship Course could serve as a model for Irish Meadows. The 2-year-old facility serves as WisconsinâÄôs full-time facility and is as spectator-friendly and as flat as courses get in the Big Ten. Zimmer cost $375,000 âÄî all donations âÄî according to Wilson.

All-American and three-year Bolstad veteran Steph Price said their current course is much more difficult than other facilities sheâÄôs run at and not nearly as spectator-friendly. ItâÄôs not without its advantages, though.

âÄúI think it can give us an advantage because we train on it and are used to it,âÄù Price said. âÄúItâÄôs definitely not a place to run fast times and itâÄôs hard to bring in other teams there because itâÄôs a little daunting âĦ We hosted a high school section meet and that was even a hard sell.âÄù

Her teammates Missa Varpness and Ashlie Decker agreed.

âÄúThereâÄôs the mentality that if we can run here [at Bolstad], we can pretty much do it anywhere,âÄù Varpness said.

Decker added: âÄúItâÄôs definitely challenging and nice to train on, but if you want to run a fast time, it wonâÄôt be on the Bolstad course.âÄù

Wilson, a veteran coach of 25 years, couldnâÄôt resist drawing a parallel to a famous Kevin Costner movie about a field and a dream: âÄúIf you build it, they will come,âÄù he said.