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BSA project painful at times

The walls are light yellow, the cabinets have that cheap wood look and a radiator takes up about a third of one entire wall. When Ade Sponberg occupied the North Dakota State athletic director’s office in the 1970s, it was probably cool. In 2014, it’s called outdated.

The entire Bison Sports Arena in about another month will be handed over to construction workers for a two-year makeover that will resurface as the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. The main piece — the Scheels Center basketball stadium — will be the modern centerpiece, seating 5,700.

It’s a project that has followed Gene Taylor since he was hired as athletic director on May 2, 2001. When he got the job, the talk was of minor facelifts like new bleachers.

By 2005, that shifted to a total renovation with a goal of $18 million as part of the university’s campus-wide $75 million “Momentum” campaign. But the athletic department fell well short — raising $8 million.

Taylor admitted this week that doubts entered his mind. It was never on life support, but for a few years after the 2005 fundraising announcement, it also wasn’t looking promising.

An athletic department that was blowing away Division I transition expectations with unforeseen success was having trouble with its biggest bricks and mortar need: a new basketball arena.

“We’re sitting there going, ‘What’s next?’” Taylor said. “‘How do we get that? How do we take it from here?’”

There were two turning points. One, NDSU’s then-president Joe Chapman made it a priority with the NDSU Development Foundation in the “Building the Competitive Edge” university campaign. And two, it was about that time when MeritCare was in discussions for a merger with Sanford Health.

It wasn’t too much longer when Taylor and NDSU senior associate athletic director Pat Simmers were in the Sioux Falls, S.D., office of Sanford president and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft. Taylor and Simmers never even got to talk about the designs and proposals because Krabbenhoft beat them to the punch.

“He just drew $10 million on a white board,” Taylor said. “We walked out of there and said we just got a $10 million gift.”

That was announced in 2010. The Scheels family came forward with a $5 million gift a few months later.

In 2012, the State Board of Higher Education authorized NDSU to spend up to $35.4 million to renovate the arena. The final price tag, however, came in over $5 million higher.

In his business planner, Taylor wrote down six steps that were needed for the project to become a reality. Approvals were needed from Team Makers booster group, the Development Foundation council, executive committee and full board, the State Board of Higher Education and, finally, the budget section of the North Dakota Legislature.

With every step, Taylor wrote a check mark on one side and “yes” on the other. It is now part of a plaque in his office.

“We breathed heavily through each one of those,” Taylor said. “If just one of them said no, the project dies and you have to figure out what to do with the donor money that’s sitting there. Any one of those could have sent it into the tank.”

So, at last, the biggest piece of the facility puzzle is about to become a reality. Legwork has already begun on some sort of indoor practice bubble for football with the hope of completing fundraising in two years.

But the big white building will be transformed into a legitimate Division I arena.

It didn’t happen overnight. Can Taylor finally raise a toast?

“Not until I see construction crews come in here,” he said, “because we’ve waited so long and wanted it so badly.”

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.