After a big leap to NCAA Division I athletics, St. Thomas has made its latest major move with a plan to build a new arena on campus for the basketball and hockey teams and other events.
The St. Paul, Minnesota, school announced Tuesday a record $75 million gift from longtime benefactors Lee and Penny Anderson toward the $175 million project scheduled to be finished by the fall of 2025. The arena will have the Andersons’ names on it and is slated for capacity between 4,000 and 6,000 people, depending on configuration.
“When they learned of this opportunity they jumped at it, because they recognized that this is key to our upward trajectory at St. Thomas,” president Rob Vischer said. “They’re obviously huge supporters of our mission.”
According to St. Thomas research of publicly known donations, this is the largest monetary gift to a university in Minnesota in history and the ninth-largest in the country designated for college sports. Currently, the Tommies play basketball in a 1,800-seat gym. Their men’s hockey and women’s hockey teams take the ice in a suburban facility about 8 miles off campus that holds 1,000 fans and is shared with prep and youth programs.
Kicked out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference after 100 years for competitive imbalance, St. Thomas embarked on the first direct-to-Division I move from Division III in the modern history of the NCAA. That dovetailed with an overarching desire to raise the school’s national profile among Catholic universities.
This is the second season in Division I for the Tommies, who joined the Summit League for most sports. Men’s hockey is in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, and women’s hockey is in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
“As we looked at the campus experience for students and the energy and atmosphere that athletics adds to the community, that was really an important aspect of trying to bring hockey and keep basketball on campus,” athletic director Phil Esten said. “It makes it more accessible, not just for our student athletes but for our students at large.”
The urban campus in Minnesota’s capitol city is just 78 acres, making for a tight fit — and a tight-knit community. The Andersons gave $60 million in 2007 toward the student center and athletic complex that houses the current basketball arena that will continue to house the volleyball team.
“We want the students who come to St. Thomas to have the experience and form the connections that make their time on campus some of the most transformative of their lives,” Lee Anderson said.
If the total fundraising goal of $131 million is met by the spring of 2024, groundbreaking will take place then. The Tommies would then go from having the second-smallest basketball arena in the Summit League to the top half of the 10-team conference in capacity. Oral Roberts has the largest at more than 8,700.
St. Thomas also has currently the smallest rink in the CCHA, with the largest buildings in the league seating about 5,000 fans.
TOP PHOTO: Lee and Penny Anderson smile at the conclusion of a kick-off event Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at the Anderson Student Center on the campus of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn. St. Thomas plans to build an on-campus basketball and hockey arena, the latest major move by the Minnesota Catholic university that’s in its second school year as an NCAA Division I athletics program. The new facility drive was fueled by a $75 million gift that’s the largest in school history. (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP)