Build it and 1.3 million people will come.
That was among the pledges given in 2010 by the Vadnais Heights City Council. The panel assured the 12,000-plus residents of the northern Ramsey County suburb that building a state-of-the-art sports complex would not only help put the city on the map, but the athletic behemoth — with two hockey rinks and a 100,000-square-foot dome — wouldn't cost taxpayers a nickel.
Among those pushing the deal was then-council member Marc Johannsen. In 2011 Johannsen was appointed Vadnais Heights mayor.
Proponents like Johannsen said the city would use revenues to repay almost $27 million in construction bonds. Projections put annual cash flow at more than $2 million. As the debt was paid off, ownership and daily operations would be handed off to Deephaven nonprofit Community Facilities Partners.
Too good to be true, it was.
Revenue promises proved pipe dreams. The facility struggled with its bills. Taxpayers spent more than $5 million in bond payments before the city walked away from the frustrating obligation.
But the true cost of the project is unknown, thanks to the council. It first called for an audit way back in 2012. But a breach of contract lawsuit by former arena manager Mark Bigelbach truncated the investigation. A judge, citing the litigation, ruled the documents were private due to attorney-client privilege.
Bigelbach's suit was settled months ago. But the council voted 3-2 last week to keep the audit private.
Johannsen, who led the charge, explained it to the Pioneer Press this way: “We settled the lawsuit. We are not going to retry it again in the press and have it brought up every two months. ... Vadnais Heights is moving forward … and we should focus on positive things.”
That's a red herring, counters council member Bob Fletcher. He tells City Pages the mayor is one of the few who actually know what's in the report. Fletcher has also been informed the audit includes an interview with a city staffer, who warned council members in 2010 that the complex's promised financials were a joke.
"The audit might reflect negatively on the conduct of the city in terms of monitoring the financials of the sports center in a timely fashion," says Fletcher. "If that audit does reflect lackadaisical [practices], and I don't know for a fact if it does, we should know that information. It's not something we want to stick our heads in the sand on."
It could be something that brings Johannsen only grief. The mayor didn't respond to repeated interview requests.
Ramsey County bought the sports center in 2014 for $9.8 million. Vadnais Heights City Administrator Kevin Watson calculates its costs to city taxpayers at around $6 million.
"Transparent government is better government," Fletcher says. "It gets itself in more trouble trying to protect itself than it does when it's just honest."