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September 23, 2019

8/29/2019 7:30:00 AM
School board votes to take dome to bid
Committee will meet Friday to discuss complex

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

With a 7-1 vote Monday evening the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education approved the design of the air-supported dome to be built adjacent to Mike Webster Stadium and authorized the administration to request bids to build it.

The action came during a special board meeting called to formalize the selection of the larger of the two dome options and hold a more detailed discussion as to how the proposed Hodag Sports Complex will look when it'scompleted next fall.

Board member Ann Munninghoff Eshelman cast the lone "nay" vote. David Holperin was absent.

In asking for a motion to approve the design and bidding for the large dome structure, the capital projects ad hoc committee officially took the smaller option "off the table," the board was told.

Board member Mike Roberts provided the motion to approve, which Duane Frey seconded, allowing discussion on the matter. Roberts, who also chairs the ad hoc committee, then updated the board on the status of the project.

"We were going through a lot of the design options at the capital projects meeting and it quickly became obvious from the room and where we were headed that a lot of the discussion was about the courts in the dome," Roberts said. "But a fair amount of work would need to go in to bid the large structure and then have an alternate to make it smaller. More soil borings would be required, stuff like that. So a motion was made and passed unanimously to take the small structure off the table and just go with the large structure only as far as bidding purposes."

Roberts went on to explain that the larger dome would accommodate more teams.

"We would also add the court sports, tennis, pickleball," Roberts said, adding that additional court surfaces such as basketball or volleyball could be purchased to provide additional flexibility. "The courts will be built as competition tennis courts so that regional, sectional tennis matches could be held in there."

Eshelman expressed some confusion as to how the committee came to the decision to go with the dome over a smaller brick and mortar addition to the high school.

"Are our desires expanding faster than our budget here?" she asked.

"I think - and this is just my personal opinion and others can speak up - when we looked at the cost of the air -supported structure and what can be done in a building that size, we're still way under the cost of what a brick and mortar structure would be," Roberts replied. "And it would add so much more. By adding on that extra 30,000 square feet you can do so much more, it brings in just about every sport, athletic activity that we have, including with P.E. (physical education)."

The larger dome could also host sports and camping shows it was noted.

Roberts said the cost of the extra 30,000 square feet was estimated to add around $1 million to the cost of the dome. Estimates place the total cost of the dome at between $3.5 and $4 million.

In June, the board voted to earmark up to $5.7 million from the general fund for the dome project.

"So your expectation is that this (larger dome) would come in considerably less than the $5.7 million?" Eshelman asked.

Once the capital improvement committee took the cost of the larger dome into consideration, the possibilities of building the softball fields, outdoor practice field and the junior varsity baseball field started to take shape, Roberts explained.

"We've had the softball fields on our minds for two years now, and we have donations dedicated to the softball fields," he said.

He also noted that the Rhinelander Schools Foundation has raised a total of $1.65 million in private donations, some of which is earmarked for the dome project. Donations are still coming in, he added.

"We think that we'll be $1.7 million, or over, by the time we're taking in bids," Roberts said. "And then there is the potential for more with a couple donor meetings that we have yet. If things go right, maybe we can push it (private donations) over $2 million. That allows for us to do everything, and maybe grow our scope a little bit more or do some things that we didn't think about, depending on where the donors want to spend the money."

Eshelman asked if the private donations would be used to reduce the $5.7 million the board set aside.

Board president Ron Counter answered that the board voted to commit the $5.7 million and it was allocated in the 2019-20 budget.

Former district business manager Marta Kwiatkowski (who left her position with the district at the end of June) had advocated that the board set up a Fund 46, which would be a separate account where money could be set aside for maintenance of the dome and replacement of the dome fabric and turf, both of which are expected to last 20 to 25 years.

"If you have enough money in that fund in 25 years to replace it, you could take a 25-year (old) structure and turn it into a 50-year structure," Roberts said, adding that every donor dollar the district can get is going to be used to enhance the project over and above what the board has committed to spending.

Frey noted that in all the previous discussions, the board was drawn to the bigger dome.

"Because we're only going to have one shot at this as far as cost. If we put $5.7 million as the ceiling, whether we spend that or not, but I suspect that we're going to be fairly close to that, depending on what we put around it," Frey said, adding those costs are unknown at this time. "Capital projects has not met about costs on anything yet."

In order for the district to stay on course as far as the goal of having the dome ready to open in the fall of 2020, the board had to make a decision to start the bidding process, Roberts added.

Members of the administration and the capital projects committee are scheduled to meet Friday with engineers from the Rettler Corporation, which was selected by the board to do the design work and manage construction of the overall project. That meeting would be to finalize the design of the dome's interior so that the specifications can be written.

"They will spec out the design and the initial earth work, and then we'll have those costs," Roberts said. "And once they have an initial earth work design done, they'll be able to get a better estimate of the cost of all the other stuff."

He estimated that by the time the board is ready to accept a bid on the dome structure, the capital projects committee would have engineering estimates for the cost of the entire complex.

"So we'll have a much better cost of the overall project and what we can do outside of the dome," Roberts said.

Dave Heck, president of RSF, agreed with Robert's assessment of the private donation side of the project.

"As Mike said, there has been such positive feedback from the community hoping that the schools go with the larger dome and the outdoor improvements as well. You guys are still considering all of this, but if the dome is $4 million and the outdoor landscaping and all the different things that you have to do for softball is $2 million plus, that's already eaten up the $5.7 million," Heck said.

He added that any leftover funds could be set aside in the Fund 46 for future expenses.

"I think our conversations have evolved from hen we first started, and I was one of the people who supported brick and mortar when we were talking about practice facilities," said board member Judy Conlin.

Conlin said it's became abundantly clear that the dome option would be much less expensive than the brick and mortar option and thus the board's viewpoint shifted.

A major factor in the evolution of the board's thinking was being able to accommodate spring sports competitions to prevent cancellations that result in compacted seasons, it was noted.

"That's when we started to say we needed to expand what the dome could do," Conlin said, adding that the community uses of the dome and potential revenue stream have also been important considerations.

Robert Thom, who replaced Kwiatkowski as district business manager, said the fund balance is at a point where it could absorb the loss of $5.7 million without the district being forced into short-term borrowing to cover expenses better tax receipts coming in.

Counter noted that posters of the potential layouts were displayed earlier this month at the RHS all-alumni event, and many alums expressed excitement about the project. The reactions of the roughly 2,000 people who shared their thoughts with district representatives were overwhelmingly positive, he said.

Roberts also noted there have been concerns that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction might take some of the district's fund balance because it is too high and give to other districts. Fund 46 would be set up as an irrevocable trust that can't accessed for a minimum of five years from when it is established.

"The best thing you could do with that money is build infrastructure because a one-time payment that spends it (fund balance) all down and then it's all gone," he said. "Infrastructure is going to last you 20-25 years or 40-50 years, if we're able to package it correctly."

Spending the money to build something that will attract people to move to Rhinelander is an investment the district should make, he added.

The board then called for a vote on the motion.

After the motion passed, Bob Heck told the board members they should be proud of themselves for taking the next step in getting the complex built.

"On behalf of all of us in this room, I just want to make a comment to congratulate the school board for the work effort that you people have put into making this dome project, I think and so do most people in the city of Rhinelander, a success," Heck said.

He also congratulated the people who have donated money, especially Dr. Lee Swank and family, whose $500,000 donation toward expanding indoor practice space for the district started the process.

"From what we understand, this is going to be a monumental plus for Rhinelander," Heck said. "And I think that once people start to realize what a plus it will be, you'll see everyone getting behind it."

The board then discussed various options for the design of the entire sports complex, including moving the junior varsity baseball field to where the soccer practice fields are located across from the high school next to the tennis courts and building a bathroom building that would serve both. This would free up space in the athletic complex for removing snow from around the dome and parking lots behind the high school.

Roberts said that district activities director Brain Paulson is already getting inquiries from school districts interested in booking space in the dome next winter and early spring.

With the turf allowing for marking of the track and the long straight away for sprints and hurdle events, the track coach is already planning on hosting an invitational in the dome to be billed "the greatest show on turf" he added.

In addition, the economic impact the complex will bring to the city through hosting various events was also discussed.

"People in the state are hearing about it and seeing it and they're already wanting to use it," Roberts said.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at

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