The Valley arms race: It’s a never-ending process to keep improving football facilities

FARGO — When the three buses carrying the North Dakota State football team drive up to Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 18, it will be the second-straight road game in which the Bison will play in a new or renovated facility. Illinois State invested $26 million into a project that NDSU has yet to see.
The last time the Bison played at ISU was in 2012.
Two weeks ago, NDSU saw a completed Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium at South Dakota State for the first time, a $65 million beauty next to a $32 million indoor practice facility that now stands collectively as the benchmark in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Remember when NDSU was the gold standard in the league?
The Bison still lay claim to the best game-day experience in the conference, if not the entire FCS. Sioux Falls Argus-Leader sportswriter Mick Garry, in Fargo last week covering the University of South Dakota at NDSU game, captioned his panoramic Twitter photo of the masses tailgating before the game “this is not an ‘area,’ it is a town. They have their own nine-man high school football team.”
But the Fargodome just turned 25 years old and although still a very well-maintained and functional indoor venue, it is 25 years old. In the arms race of Division I football, the Bison do not have a club-level space to entertain a large number of boosters that overlooks the field. SDSU, Illinois State and Southern Illinois do. Northern Iowa has a smaller one. Youngstown State is building a new press box next season to accommodate for a bigger club room.
“It has elevated the game day perks that we can provide,” said ISU athletic director Larry Lyons.
The new east side stands and suites have dramatically changed the look and feel of the stadium for the people along adjacent Main Street, a main thoroughfare in Normal. The old look was a set of bleachers that looked more like a high school stadium.
“It’s changed the feeling as you drive in,” Lyons said. “And inside the stadium, the ambience is much better than before.”
Almost three years ago, the Fargo Dome Authority Building and Finance Committee was presented seven proposals to change the ambience of its facility, which were designed by the local firm TL Stroh Architects and Interiors. They ranged from $2.8 million lobby expansion to a grand $21.5 million west side addition.
So what happened to those plans?
At the time, committee member John Q. Paulsen indicated the Dome Authority was waiting on the City of Fargo to decide when or where to build a proposed convention center. That task now has been shifted to the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney.
“We’ve asked the Chamber to come up with ideas on where to put it location-wise and how to finance it,” Mahoney said. “My concern is when you’re talking about $80 to $100 million, I’m not sure the public would support a public vote on that.”
Mahoney said once work is completed on the new City Hall, focus can shift to what to do with the adjacent Fargo Civic Center, with one possibility turning it into a performance arts hall.
“We think that would make sense for downtown,” he said.
In the meantime, Fargodome general manager Rob Sobolik said plans are in the early stages for some sort of improvements separate from any conference or convention space. That includes some sort of enclosed club level above the concourse in the southeast corner of the dome.
The Dome Authority still has a healthy surplus fund, which is currently between $40 and $41 million, Sobolik said. He said the hope is by January the Authority will be looking at potential cost estimates with construction “likely financed out of the surplus.”
Also in the early stages for the dome are upgrades in more restroom and storage space, an updated event locker room in the lower level, more circulation space for fans moving around the concourse and work to the east side press box including a restroom.
As for matching SDSU’s facilities, NDSU has been in the discussion phase to build an indoor football practice center.  Whether it’s on a front or back burner is not certain, but the fact NDSU has finished the Sanford Health Athletic Complex makes it more feasible to do so.
It’s also on the minds of the Illinois State athletic department, whose only indoor venue is old Horton Field House adjacent to the football stadium.
In fact, half of the Valley teams have access to indoor turf practice space at NDSU, SDSU, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State and USD.
“The next phase for us is the indoor,” said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. “I don’t think it’s never not been an arms race anywhere. It’s all relative to the level you play at.”
Spack coached for 22 seasons in the Big Ten Conference, where the arms race is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars instead of the tens of millions in the Missouri Valley.
“It’s no different there than it is here, we’re all trying to improve facilities — it’s a never-ending process,” Spack said. “At SDSU, you tip your cap to those people, the outdoor stadium is the nicest in the league. We had to do something with our facility, it was awful, horrendous actually, when we took the job here. Fortunately we’ve had some success and got it built.”