Rico Blasi knew that the University of St. Thomas' 2020 move to NCAA Division I athletics would require the St. Paul private school to upgrade its facilities. The men's hockey coach just didn't think it would happen so fast.
Thanks to a record $75 million gift — believed to be the largest to any university in Minnesota — construction of the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena could begin in 2024, with the doors open as soon as 2025.
"This is not something that comes easy," Blasi said after the announcement in a packed atrium at the Anderson Student Center. "Certainly the speed of how everything has unfolded, we're very grateful for that."
The gift goes a long way toward meeting the project's estimated total cost of $175 million, and puts the university more than 60% towards its fundraising goal of $131 million, St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said Tuesday. He repeatedly called the Andersons' donation — one of several the couple has made over the years — transformative.
The center will be home to men's and women's hockey and men's and women's basketball. It will also serve a number of other functions, including commencement and convocation ceremonies. Its basketball courts and ice rinks may also be used by high schools and youth teams, Esten said.
The donation comes as the Catholic university in St. Paul is trying to build its reputation outside the Twin Cities and is relying, in part, on athletics to do that.
"We are super strong in our region," university President Rob Vischer said. "We need to be known outside of our region, and athletics is one lever that we need to employ to grow that reputation.
"We do not anticipate that this will require an increase in tuition," he said.
The university received permission from the NCAA in 2020 to jump from Division III athletics to Division I in most sports, a transition that took effect last school year.
Esten said he hopes being able to provide facilities that "at least are comparable, if not exceed those of our competitors" will provide a boost for recruitment.
The new arena will be constructed on the south side of the university's campus, near a parking facility also named for the couple. To make room, the university anticipates that it will demolish the McCarthy Gymnasium, the Service Center, and the Cretin Hall dormitory.
St. Thomas is the largest private university in Minnesota. For decades, its growth and the headaches that can come with thousands of college students living in an otherwise residential area has sparked tension between area residents and the school.
Vischer acknowledged the project will require communication and cooperation between the university and its neighbors. Heightened concerns over parking and traffic are sure to accompany the arena's progress. St. Thomas already participates in a couple of different neighborhood groups, he said.
"This will unfold in that regular course, where we already have those relationships," Vischer said.
Following the announcement, the design process for the arena will accelerate.
The hockey teams currently play off campus at the St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights, which has seating for only about 1,000 spectators. The basketball teams play on campus at Schoenecker Arena with capacity for about 1,800. The new arena would have 4,000 seats for hockey and 5,000 for basketball.
Jade Hill, a sophomore from Minneapolis on the women's basketball team, said she knows she will never have a chance to play at the new arena. But she said the Andersons' gift will be felt by decades of players to come.
"I feel like what we're doing is really special and all the student-athletes can see it and feel it," Hill said.
Kendall Blue, a freshman on the men's basketball team, anticipates hitting the court in the new arena as a senior.
"It's motivating to just come to work every day, to represent St. Paul and to represent my school," Blue said.
John Tauer, men's head basketball coach, admitted to being a bit awestruck after the whirlwind that has accompanied St. Thomas' unprecedented rise from NCAA Division III to Division I.
"It's a mixture of gratitude and amazement, when you look at the scope of the project. Not just what it's going to allow our basketball and hockey teams to do, but the entire university," he said.
The building will be constructed with Kasota limestone to remain in character with others on the campus, one of the stipulations the Andersons put on the donation.
"We don't make a lot of $75 million gifts; this is the only one," Lee Anderson said in an interview. "We are proud of our association with the school. We felt we could do it and other people would benefit from our success."
Anderson owned New Brighton-based APi Group Inc., and sold the privately held business three years ago when he retired.
Anderson never attended St. Thomas, but the Twin Cities native who now lives in Naples, Fla., with his wife, said he long admired the institution. He served on the university's board of trustees for 12 years. His daughter, Katharine Anderson Groethe, now serves on the board, and her children attend the school.
"The move to Division I was a quantum leap for them, and the facilities are not up to the standards of a Division I school," Lee Anderson said in an interview. "The arena project came along, and that was something we could support."
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.