University of St. Thomas, backed by the largest private cash donation ever to a Minnesota college or university, today unveiled plans for a $175 million multi-purpose campus facility for its men’s and women’s hockey and basketball teams.
The $75 million major gift from Lee and Penny Anderson, longtime UST benefactors, surpassed the previous record of $60 million, which they gave in 2007 to build the UST Student Center and Athletics and Recreation Complex.
The Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will seat about 4,000 for hockey, 5,000 for basketball and 6,000 for concerts and university functions, according to UST Athletics Director Phil Esten. An auxiliary ice rink and separate training sessions for men’s and women’s basketball are also planned.
The school is expected to break ground in spring 2024 and open the building by fall 2025. The hall’s Kasota limestone exterior and classic university Gothic architecture will be in keeping with the other buildings on campus.
“I’ve always been into sports, so the idea of a new arena in St. Thomas resonated with me from the very beginning,” said Lee Anderson, owner and president of API Group, Inc. who played football and basketball at West Point in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “My wife and I felt that the first contribution we made there, for the student center and so on, worked so well that we would like to do something further while we can. This seemed like a perfect fit.”
Esten said Anderson’s gift gives the school a 60% stake in the $131 million fundraising goal. If the donations are not enough, new UST President Rob Vischer said the university will fund the rest. The cost of the project includes the demolition of three buildings on UST’s South Campus in St. Paul to make room for the arena – McCarthy Gym, an indoor facility; Cretin Residence Hall, built in 1895 and remodeled in 1989; and 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 in the ice arena of St. Thomas in Mendota Heights, which seats about 1,000, easily the smallest in any conference by any team.
Esten said UST added basketball to the plan last July after abandoning efforts to build an arena in Highland Park’s Highland Bridge neighborhood. Men’s and women’s basketball are played on campus in the 1,800-seat Schoenecker Arena, one of the Summit League’s smallest arenas. Both teams need more cap space to generate additional revenue and attract better non-conference opponents.
“As we turned away from Highland Bridge and thought about bringing hockey to campus, we were seriously looking at whether it would work for basketball,” Esten said. “We just thought it made financial sense and made economic sense to double that and make sure those facilities are being used in an efficient way.”
Esten said he has spoken with builders and managers of multi-purpose college arenas at Wisconsin (Kohl Center), Ohio State (Schottenstein Center), Arizona State (newly opened Mullett Arena), Nebraska-Omaha (Baxter Arena) and Boston College (Conte Forum) as to learn more about floor construction and conversion. He added that the new arena will not be exclusively for UST events.
“We kind of fill a void in the Twin Cities,” Esten said. “There really aren’t any other 5,000-seat halls. Whether it’s state high school hockey or basketball, conventions, campus convocations, openings or job fairs, I think it’s going to be a pretty popular place.”
Vischer, the former 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 of Minnesota. He’s glad the Andersons wanted to help.
“We obviously remain in close contact with Lee and Penny Anderson, as they are key and longtime 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 and more interested and jumped in in a big way.”
The Andersons’ interest in St. Thomas started more than 30 years ago with their Minneapolis neighbors, John and Cheryl O’Shaughnessy. John O’Shaughnessy, who passed away in 2020, was the grandson of famous UST alumnus and philanthropist IA O’Shaughnessy, whose name adorns the library, football stadium and other campus buildings.
“We knew a lot about St. Thomas just going there with the two of them,” said Lee Anderson, 83. “We loved it.”
Lee Anderson later struck up a friendship with Reverend Dennis Dease, former president of UST. “We’ve been great friends since the O’Shaughnessy days,” he said. “Part of the reason we gave such a generous gift is that Fr. death. He is a truly remarkable gentleman.”