The University of St. Thomas, backed by the largest single private monetary donation ever to a Minnesota college or university, revealed plans today for a $175 million multi-purpose arena on campus for its men’s and women’s hockey and basketball teams.
The lead gift of $75 million from Lee and Penny Anderson, longtime UST benefactors, exceeded the old record of $60 million, which they contributed in 2007 toward construction of UST’s student center and athletic and recreation complex.
The Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will hold about 4,000 patrons for hockey, 5,000 for basketball and 6,000 for concerts and university commencements, according to UST Athletics Director Phil Esten. Plans include an auxiliary ice rink and separate men’s and women’s basketball practice facilities.
The school expects to break ground in the spring of 2024 and open the building by fall 2025. The arena’s Kasota Limestone exterior and classic Collegiate Gothic architecture will fit with other buildings on campus.
“I’ve always been sports-minded, so the idea of a new arena at St. Thomas resonated with me right from the very beginning,” said Lee Anderson, owner and chairman of API Group, Inc. who played football and basketball at West Point in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “My wife and I felt the first contribution we made there, for the student center and so forth, worked out so well that we’d like to do something further while we can. This seemed to be a perfect fit.”
Esten said the Anderson’s gift puts the school 60% toward its fund-raising goal of $131 million. If donations fall short, new UST President Rob Vischer said the university will finance the rest. The project cost includes demolition of three buildings on UST’s South Campus in St. Paul to make room for the arena – McCarthy Gym, an intramural facility; Cretin Residence Hall, built in 1895 and remodeled in 1989; and a service center.
Even before the NCAA approved UST’s unprecedented move from Division III to Division I in 2020, the university knew it needed a new facility for men’s and women’s hockey. Both play at St. Thomas Academy’s ice arena in Mendota Heights, which holds about 1,000, easily the tiniest in each team’s respective conference.
Esten said UST added basketball to the plan last July after abandoning efforts to build the arena in the Highland Bridge development in Highland Park. Men’s and women’s basketball play on campus at 1,800-capacity Schoenecker Arena, one of the Summit League’s smallest venues. Both teams need more seating to generate additional revenue and attract better non-conference opponents.
“As we pivoted from Highland Bridge and looked at bringing hockey to campus, we looked real hard at whether it would work for basketball as well,” Esten said. “We just thought it made financial sense, and it was economical prudent to double down on that and make sure that those facilities are used in an efficient way.”
Esten said he spoke with builders and operators of multi-purpose college arenas at Wisconsin (Kohl Center), Ohio State (Schottenstein Center), Arizona State (the newly-opened Mullett Arena), Nebraska-Omaha (Baxter Arena) and Boston College (Conte Forum) to learn more about construction and floor conversion. He added the new arena won’t be strictly for UST events.
“We’re kind of filling a void in the Twin Cities,” Esten said. “There really aren’t any other 5,000 seat venues. Whether it’s state high school hockey or basketball, conventions, convocation in campus, commencement or job fairs, I think it’s going to be a pretty popular venue.”
Vischer, formerly the dean of UST’s law school, believes the arena will raise the university’s national profile in athletics and help it attract more students from outside Minnesota. He’s glad the Andersons wanted to help.
“We obviously stay in close contact with Lee and Penny Anderson, because they’re key and longstanding benefactors of the university,” Vischer said. “We always want to make sure they understand the vision, the trajectory, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. As they learned more about this project, they became more interested, and they jumped in in a big way.”
The Andersons’ interest in St. Thomas began more than 30 years ago with their Minneapolis neighbors, John and Cheryl O’Shaughnessy. John O’Shaughnessy, who died in 2020, was the grandson of famed UST alumnus and philanthropist I.A. O’Shaughnessy, whose name adorns the library, the football stadium and other campus buildings.
“So we knew a lot about St. Thomas just going over there with the two of them,” said Lee Anderson, 83. “We loved it.”
Lee Anderson later struck up a friendship with the Rev. Dennis Dease, the former UST president. “We’ve been great friends going back to the O’Shaughnessy days,” he said. “Part of the reason we made such a generous gift is because of Fr. Dease. He’s really an outstanding gentleman.”