RHINELANDER - The School District of Rhinelander made a record-breaking investment Monday night, pledging $5.7 million to a new indoor athletic facility.
It's more than the district has ever spent on a single project.
The school board narrowed its options to either a 90,000-square-foot air-supported permanent dome or a 50,000-square foot steel-sided indoor complex. It will make that decision after hearing from planners and contractors in the coming weeks.
"This is one of the greatest days for Rhinelander," said Hodag Schools Foundation President Dave Heck. "This is going to be an absolute differentiator and a game changer for Rhinelander. This is an incredible night for Rhinelander. It's a major positive for northern Wisconsin and the community."
Last year, local physician Dr. Lee Swank pledged $500,000 for such a facility. Heck's organization raised an additional $700,000. Along with the district's pledge Monday night, the school has about $7 million for facility construction and maintenance.
"We need something permanent, indoors, no matter what it is. It can be a dome. It can be an indoor facility. But we need something permanent. That's really what the school decided tonight to do," Heck said.
The board's unanimous vote came after passionate lobbying by a large crowd at the special meeting.
"I can't urge the board enough to be a board of action. This is good for our community," former Rhinelander teacher and soccer coach Dan Millot said. "I urge you guys to take the risk. Take the risk. Build the facility."
The board scrapped the idea of building a seasonal dome over the football and soccer field at Mike Webster Stadium, which was on the table to begin the night. That plan would have called for the dome to be erected each fall and taken down in the spring.
A potential permanent dome would likely be built adjacent to Mike Webster Stadium on the facility's west side. District business manager Marta Kwiatkowski estimated the permanent dome would cost between $2 million and $3 million, including a required fire suppression system. Annual maintenance costs would be $156,000. The 100-yard field inside could accommodate a full soccer game, two softball games, or many other uses.
The steel structure would cost nearly $7 million, but have minimal maintenance costs. Its full length would be about 50 yards.
Board president Ron Counter said he prefers the dome, but is excited about either option. Either would be the school's first major expansion of space since 1958.
"There's more opportunity for the community. There's more opportunity for the school, with the [dome], but both of them are a huge upgrade from anything that we have now," Counter said.
Board members Ann Munninghoff-Eshelman and David Holperin said they also support the dome, while Duane Frey and Judy Conlin lean toward the steel-sided facility. Mike Roberts did not express a clear opinion. Ron Lueneburg, Mary Peterson, and Benjamin Roskoskey were absent from the meeting.
Counter was clear he wants the process to go forward quickly.
"The area has a tendency, on big projects, to drag its feet. It gets nickeled and dimed. The longer we go, the more this project's going to cost," he said.
The board also decided to make another major athletic upgrade on Monday.
It unanimously agreed to spend $600,000 to put in artificial turf at Mike Webster Stadium.
That should be ready for football and soccer season in the fall.