VIRGINIA — “This is a major, not a minor project,” said Brian Silber, the Virginia Parks and Recreation Director in early February. “The Miners is a major project.”
Silber’s desk is flanked by boxes and banners. He shares the space with the department’s secretary and anything that needs to be stored. A chair is wedged in, for visitors at Silber’s desk, and there is a pair of figure skates hiding on the floor between the feet.
“We want to honor the city’s heritage,” said Silber turning his computer screen to point at design documents. “Elements from the lumber and mining industries are coming into the design. On the exterior there will be finishes resembling woods and some finishes to pay tribute to the mining industry.”
Silber has a master’s degree in recreation administration with a concentration in facility design and development. As he spoke of the Miners project, he was excited and energized by the topic knowing how his effort would benefit the community.
Silber took this job with Virginia knowing the project was on the horizon. As he put it, “My background was attractive to them and this project was attractive to me.”
“The current Miners is rich in history and has been a valuable asset for the community since the 1950s, but it has outlived its usefulness,” Silber said. “There is failing infrastructure and, the fact is, it is not laid out to meet the desired needs of community functions. We are going in the direction of the new facility that can grow with Virginia which makes more financial sense [than a renovation].”
A figure skater stuck her head into the office looking for someone to unlock their locker room.
“Hey!” said Silber to the high schooler. “The new pipes and drapes arrived.” He explained that they are starting to purchase things for the new facility and the newly arrived pipes and drapes will be seen at this year’s skating show.
Recently, Virginia has started the design development stage of the Miners Event and Convention Center (MECC), the name of the new Miners Memorial Building. Several meetings have been held with presentations by DSGW, ONE, Kraus-Anderson, SEH, ISG, Northland Consulting Engineers, R. L. Mather and Kimley-Horn to the Virginia City Council, city administration, the Parks and Recreation Department and involved community members.
DSGW is the lead contractor, with Eric Wedge heading the project, and is working with the other various organizations throughout the different aspects of the project. The MECC is expected to be 117,000 square feet.
Reconstruction approval and sales tax
Citizens of Virginia voted in the fall of 2018 to support a 1 percent sales tax for the renovation, reconstruction expansion and improvement of the Miners Memorial Complex.
The city voted to approve the tax for up to 20 years on capital and administrative/financing costs of renovation, reconstruction, expansion and improvement of Miners.
By passing the measure, the city then had to go to the Minnesota Legislature for approval to impose the sales tax. A city cannot impose its own sales taxes — that must be done by the state.
In May 2019, the Legislature approved, the 1 percent sales tax and it went into effect January 2020. In a sign of good faith, the 2016 legislature provided $12 million to Virginia for this project.
How long will it take for Virginia to pay off the Miner’s project? That depends on tax revenue.
In a 2019 article with the Mesabi Daily News, Virginia’s Mayor Larry Cuffe explained that based on 2016 tax information, the city is projecting to raise $1.8 million a year for Miners. The final cost of the project and length of the sales tax will depend on the community spending and how long it takes to reach the final cost, but it will not be in effect for more than 20 years.
The plan is to construct the MECC before demolishing the existing Miners complex so there will be minimal disruption to the Parks and Recreation Department’s programing.
The MECC will sit on the location of Ewens Field with the south endzone being the building’s main entrance.
According to plans, the MECC will have two hockey arenas. One will have the capability of year-round ice. This space will have limited seating with the purpose of being used by younger skaters.
The main arena will have the possibility of ice up to 9 months a year. Seating will be accessed through the second floor of the building with a capacity of over 1,500 seating and 300 standing attendance. Exciting lighting will go around the perimeter of this arena and colors will be adjustable depending on who is playing or what event is taking place.
Around the perimeter of the seating space of the main arena will be a walking path with windows overlooking the neighborhoods.
Both arenas have spacious zamboni storage and maintenance rooms.
During large events, for example the home and boat show, vehicles will be able to enter the main arena through the zamboni room, making for easy on and off loading of equipment.
Between the two arenas, on the main floor, are locker rooms for figure skating, youth, JV and varsity hockey teams. Under the bleachers of the main arena is storage space that is identified as future locker rooms for a possible junior hockey team.
Throughout the construction project, the city is looking at ways to bring the history of the current Miners into the MECC. One way they will be keeping the Miners alive and part of the community is through reusing items, when possible.
For example, the 800 blue seats in the Miners arena will be reused. The design team is still discussing how this will look but it may include having the blue seats grouped toward the middle with bench seating on either side.
“Yes, we are losing a building in town,” Wedge said at a recent meeting in his office, “but it won’t be gone. We will take pieces with us.”
Entering through the vestibule and lobby, there is a space for tickets and skate rental along with bathrooms, concessions and the convention space.
Flooring will be polished concrete and an ornate staircase will lead upstairs. At the bottom of the stairs will be seating for breakout sessions or while waiting for athletes to finish.
One wing of the building will be dedicated to the event and convention center. This space will have an upscale look and ability to accommodate a range of events from small-large wedding receptions to professional conferences with breakout sessions.
“The goal is for people to be wow’d and amazed when they walk into the building for the first time,” Silber said. “We hope to not only meet but exceed expectations in all areas of the facility.”
The convention space has a large event space with dinner seating up to 500 and lecture seating up to 750. This space can also be divided into four smaller rooms by movable walls. Attached to this large room is the catering kitchen.
“We will recruit people to be here,” Silber said. “That will pay dividends to the community. It will put heads in beds, fill restaurants and give local merchants a chance to promote to out of town guests.”
The dividable ballroom space will open out to a patio. This is the east side of the building and it is easy to imagine wedding goers relaxing in the warm summer evening while they refresh for another round of dancing.
Entering the convention vestibule, you will walk past a pre-function seating area with a fireplace.
“This is where all of the brides and grooms will want to take their picture,” Silber noted.
Inspiration will be seen in the wood lining the ceiling and one wall at the end of the hall.
“It is wood in sawmills,” said Wedge of the design’s inspiration. “The linear boards will hang in the hall and lighting will be integrated between the boards.”
On the right is the dividable ballroom space. To the left are three rooms with seating capacity of 20-30. In this area is a mother’s room for child feeding and minding. Bathrooms are at the end of the hall which enters into the sports space.
One functional aspect of the design for the MECC, is that the convention center can be closed off and self-sufficient from the sports side. Meaning, there can be a black-tie wedding on one end of the building during a high school hockey game and attendees will not cross-mingle.
On the second floor, the mezzanine level, is access to seating for the main arena and the press box. This level will house the offices for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Community workout spaces are divided into a cardio/strength room and fitness room at this level. There is also a future dryland room for hockey training. Restrooms, mechanical and storage space finish the layout.
The MECC will be built on the site of the Ewens football field. The site of the current baseball field will be prime for future development.
“It is all about building an economic driver for the future,” Cuffe said during a Feb. 5 design meeting. “This will be a footprint for developers to look at. Having the preparation of that land be part of the base plan will help with that.”
The MECC will be accessed by a new road. In the future, the plan is that this road will connect 9th Avenue and 12th Avenue. The base bid includes the first part of this road’s construction with the city working with area churches to finalize the purchase of some land. In the middle of this new road, there will be a roundabout that will keep traffic flowing into and out of parking.
The east parking lot will be in close to the same location as it is presently. There will also be a lot on the west side of the building. Initially, four parking rows will be completed along with the preparation work for the rest of the planned parking lot. In the future, as the needs of the facility grow, this lot will expand toward 12th Ave and the threw street will be completed.
“In the future, parking could be expanded on the west side and develop something else, like a strip mall, on the east,” imagined Silber, stating that there is a wide variety of options. Realistically, Silber acknowledged that, as with the current Miners, times will change and needs will, too.
“We may have different facility needs 20 years into the future. We need to be able to adapt and expand as Virginia grows and the community’s needs change.”
The front entryway, which will be located near the roundabout, will have a plaza space and parking. A space for a winter garden with an outdoor skating rink and fire pit is expected for seasonal enjoyment. During warmer times of the year, this plaza can be closed to traffic and set up for outdoor entertainment or food trucks. The back of the building will have a players entrance with bus parking.
The MECC will be a B3 compliant building. This means that it must reach specific energy efficiency guidelines including getting two percent of the energy usage needs met by renewable energy. “Although this may mean higher up front costs,” Wedge said, “it will mean lower operational costs down the road.”
As part of this effort, a portion of the exterior wall is planned to be a solar wall. The wall will be heated by the sun, warming the air, and this warm air will be pulled into and used by the ventilation system. Instead of pulling and using minus-20 degree air, it will bring air warmed higher than the air temperature resulting in less warming effort by the heating system.
In the hotter months, warmed air will be vented back outside.
Other energy efficient elements include motion activated lighting that turns off when a room is not in use. There will also be daylight harvesting where the lights will automatically adjust depending on what natural light comes into the room. This keeps the lighting consistent while the room is in use.
Possible outdoor landscaping includes native trees, grasses and stone. Drainage ponds are planned throughout the area.
In an effort to make the city more bike friendly, as is part of the city’s comprehensive plan, bike lanes and bike racks will be seen throughout the MECC space.
Looking toward the outer walls, Wedge said big portions face neighbors. “We didn’t want to give them a blank wall to look at but something to reflect the region.” Panels will be made of wells precast acid wash with sand blast and water washes. Portions will also be wood-look fiber cement. A section of wall will also be weathering steel, like that of the Iron Man in Chisholm, which will naturally rust but not deteriorate.
The colors throughout the MECC will reflect the rust of taconite blended with wood tones and textures.
“This will show pieces of our history,” Cuffe said on Feb. 5. “The logging and mining industries along with Native American history will be seen throughout the complex.”
Overall, the design inspiration focuses on the history of the mining and logging industries to the region. An effort is being made to have those histories, the histories of the families who will enjoy the MECC, reflected on the interior and exterior of the building.
“We are working to blend together the way these industries have blended together in our area,” Silber said.
One example will be the use of stone for the LTV site. Stone was harvested to be used at the MSP airport. “This airport was for the whole state,” explained Todd Halunen of Kimley-Horn at the Feb. 5 meeting. “We were bringing part of the Iron Range there.”
Now, stone also harvested from the LTV site, are being brought to Virginia for the MECC.
“It is our opportunity to tell a bit of the history from our area,” continued Halunen. “It is a great opportunity for our community and visitors to see that.”
The MECC will be a contemporary building and there will be the expectation for continued and future development, as funds become available and needs of the community change.
The city plans to pursue naming rights sponsorship opportunities which would go toward maintaining the space.. They are not just looking into naming rights sponsorship for the building but the arenas and various rooms within the building.
Right now, the community is calling this the New Miners. Soon, branding will transition to the sponsorship name or MECC.
Planned inside the building are displays.
“There will be spaces to have history of Virginia, the history of programs and history of conferences displayed,” Wedge added. “We can get a variety of photos to blow up to life-size.”
History of the Miners Memorial Building
“Grand opening of Virginia's new Miners Memorial Building, a recreation center at Ninth Avenue and Seventh Street South, which replaces the Memorial Recreation Building now leased by the city for a shirt factory in the downtown business area, will be held Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. each day,” announced an article in the Mesabi Daily News on March 28, 1958.
At the grand opening, the article states that the chamber provided free coffee and doughnuts and Coca Cola was served courtesy of the Coca Cola Bottling Company.
In the March 31, 1958 edition, a photo showed the crowd. “A total of 2,000 bottles of Coke were served through the courtesy of the Coca Cola Bottling Company and more than 1,000 doughnuts and 1,200 cups of coffee were served by Pepelnjak’s Bakery for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.”
Flowers and potted plants were provided for the event from Virginia floral shops and the Park Department.
Guides escorted the public through the building and answered questions. They included: Mrs. Ethel M. Hansen, Miss Ida Canossa, John Raukar, Michael Pauletti, Donald McCain, Jack Hunter, Richard Mozzetti and Edward Poupard Jr. B.R. Cuppoletti, the then recreation director, planned the event.
“The new building, near the National Guard Armory and under construction since 1956, has been a city issue for a long period of time,” the article continued. “It will have a seating capacity in the main arena of 3,200 permament seats and a maximum capacity of 7,200 with temporary bleachers installed. The old recreation building, constructed by the city as a memorial to World War I participants, had a seating capacity of 2,100 permanent seats. The city has a large area of land available on the site for parking area development.”
The article noted that the new facility provided ample room for programs but not space for curling, bocci ball or horseshoe. It did have a game room “which include 10 ping pong tables, several shuffleboard courts, tetherball, quiet games (checkers and card games) and low organized games.”
It was expected that dances and meetings would be held at the Miners.
“For the first time the dance classes will have their own dance studio. There are 300 students enrolled. Also for the first time the boxing classes will have their own tables, which have a boxing ring and other necessary equipment.”
The article continued: “After a few months’ enjoyment of the facilities of this building,” B. R. Cuppoletti, city recreation director, said, “The people of Virginia will wonder what they have done all these years without such a building.”
Later that summer, the Miners Memorial Building was dedicated. In the July 28, 1958, edition of the Mesabi Daily News it was reported that the building was dedicated during the week-long celebration of the statehood. King Robert, Dr. R. P. Pearsall and Queen Anna, Mrs. Matt Marit were crowned Centennial royalty to “reign over Centennial activities”.
During the dedication, an invocation was done by Rev. D. H. Mapson. The keys to the building were presented to then Mayor John Vukelich by the architect William M. Ingemann of Saint Paul. The Mayor then presented the keys to Councilman Vaughn Bryers, president of the Virginia Recreation Commission. The benediction was said by Rev. Fr. William Lutar.
History of the MECC
The MECC project has been 15 years in the making. For a long time, the Miners was exactly what the community needed. But as the community grew and changed, so did their needs.
In 2004, a renovation plan was made. A facility study was completed and out of a possible 5 points, the Miners earned a grade of 1.8.
“There was a need in the community to do this,” Wedge said in the DSGW office on Feb. 18.
In 2018, a referendum team was made including: city of Virginia, Kraus-Anderson, DSGW and ISG. In Dec. 2017 and Jan. 2018, over 30 meetings were held with stakeholders to discuss the possibility of changes to the Miner’s.
Along with the Virginia Public School District, the city survived area residents to gather information on needs of the community and interest in various projects. A majority of residents surveyed agreed that changes were needed to the Miners Memorial Building and that a sales tax would be appropriate to pay for the project.
A sales tax of 1 percent was voted on and approved by Virginia residents in the fall of 2018. The focus was and continues to be accessible for all in a multi-generational, multi-use and multi-family community space.
“This is not just for the city of Virginia but is a regional project,” Wedge said. Virginia is located at the intersection of Highway 53 and Highway 169. The sales tax passage allowed for the region to help pay for the facility, not just the property tax payers of Virginia.
Over the years, various events have been held at the Miners including circuses, rodeos and hockey tournaments. With the MECC, Silber said he hopes to attract those things back to Virginia. While attracting the new, the MECC will continue to be the polling precinct for the area.
Various city representatives toured other complexes and asked those communities what they liked and didn’t like about their facility. This information was brought back to the city council to discuss what was wanted and needed in their building.
It was decided that a new building, versus renovating the old space, would better fit the needs of the community and make the most economical sense.
In 2019, a pre-design study for the MECC was completed and submitted to the state, to secure necessary funding. The pre-design study states, “The main goal of this project is to increase economic impact for the City of Virginia and the region through new and enhanced facilities.”
“We want to make Virginia competitive on the marketplace,” Wedge explained.
At the time, the estimated cost was $32 million with $12 million funded through the state’s DEED grant and $20 million funded through the sales tax bonding.
The year 2019 also saw the development of the schematic design, which was based on the history of the region. Part of that idea was to look closer into the projected location.
Virginia and Rainy Lake was a white pine mill located in Virginia. After timber was brought to the city, it was planned, milled and cured throughout the area around Silver Lake, near downtown. The MECC will be built on part of that history. It is only fitting that that history be reflected in the new building.
While beginning to plan the building, it was decided to reflect the region and its history. White Pine, Maple, Birch, Aspen, Spruce, Sumac and Bush Honeysuckle will be used in landscaping along with the layered slate common to the region.
“The layered slate and taconite will be used as architectural elements in our design,” explained Wedge.
Currently, the project is in the Design Development stage.
The MECC project is currently running on the projected timeline. The Virginia City Council will continue making final decisions in the coming weeks. Construction is set to begin toward the end of April. By fall 2021, the site should be finalized and ready to open. Once the MECC is operational, deconstruction of the Miners Memorial Building will begin.
“We will continue to operate as normal until we move into our state-of-the-art home,” said Silber. “Then we will pull down our house to make way for something else, yet undecided, great which will add to the overall vision of the property.“
“This project has aligned nicely with the school’s project,” said Wedge.
The city of Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert School District and Virginia School District are working with several of the same teams members and contractors. This is allowing them to use the same information and not duplicate services, saving taxpayers money.
One example is that through the survey, it was learned that the public would prefer swimming facilities at the school and hockey facilities at the MECC.
“Sometimes people think of this as just a hockey arena,” cautioned Wedge, “but it is more than that.”