The single largest monetary gift ever given to a Minnesota university will bring hockey onto campus for the first time at the University of St. Thomas – and the state’s college basketball fans will have a new venue to visit as well.
St. Thomas on Tuesday announced the $75 million lead naming gift from Lee and Penny Anderson of Naples, Florida – two long-standing benefactors of Minnesota’s largest private university – to construct a multiuse, on-campus arena in St. Paul that will be home to its Division I men’s and women’s hockey and basketball programs. The donation is one of the 10 largest known collegiate athletics gifts ever received nationally.
Designs are still being finalized for the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena, but the historic gift officially kicks off fundraising to raise $131 million for the venue on the university’s south campus. Project costs are estimated to be $175 million. Partnering with design-build specialists Ryan Companies US, Inc. and Crawford Architects, St. Thomas aims to break ground on the new facility in 2024, with a target opening of fall 2025.
St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten spoke with MNN Sports correspondent Corbu Stathes about the big announcement:
Aside from hockey and basketball games and hosting special events, the arena is being envisioned as the new home for St. Thomas commencement ceremonies, academic convocations, speakers, career fairs and other events for the university and broader community. The arena will also provide potential opportunities for St. Thomas to partner with local schools, youth sports organizations, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations.
“This is about more than just hockey and basketball games – this is a gift that will be transformative for our entire St. Paul campus, enhance the experience of our students, and raise visibility for the university as a whole,” said St. Thomas President Rob Vischer. “It also creates a new community and economic asset for the Twin Cities, the state of Minnesota, and the region.”
With their latest gift, the Andersons are officially the university’s largest donors, and the couple’s philanthropic efforts have played a major role in St. Thomas’ decades-long evolution from small, Catholic liberal arts college to comprehensive, national Catholic university with global impact. In 2010, for example, the university opened the Anderson Student Center as well as the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex (AARC), St. Paul campus centerpieces that have dramatically enhanced the student experience, and the Anderson Parking Facility (which will serve as the primary parking structure for guests of the new arena). The AARC’s Schoenecker Arena is the current home for Tommies basketball, which competes in the Summit League conference.
The basketball and hockey programs are among the university’s varsity sports portfolio that made history in 2021 as the first Division III institution in the modern NCAA era to transition directly to Division I athletics competition. Currently, both men’s and women’s hockey teams – which compete in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and Women’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), respectively – play at the St. Thomas Ice Arena (operated by St. Thomas Academy) in Mendota Heights.
“For 138 years, St. Thomas has demonstrated commitment to excellence in all that it does, and this arena shows that same commitment to our Division I transition,” said Phil Esten, St. Thomas vice president for athletics. “Tommie hockey and basketball compete in some of the country’s best conferences, and this new arena will provide practice, competition and fan experiences expected of a Division I program. This gift helps St. Thomas to continue its upward trajectory in athletics and as an institution.”
The $75 million gift surpasses a previous $60 million donation made by the Andersons in 2007 for the construction of the Anderson Student Center, AARC and Anderson Parking Facility. At that time, the gift was the largest-ever single donation made to any university in Minnesota. In addition to being the largest gift in St. Thomas’ 138-year history, this latest donation is the ninth-largest known gift to college athletics nationally.
In total, the Andersons have donated nearly $140 million – including multiple gifts to scholarships and in support for veterans resources – to the mission-driven, Catholic university. In addition to St. Thomas, the couple is recognized as one of the largest benefactors at the United States Military Academy; Lee Anderson is a 1961 West Point graduate who served as a U.S. Army officer until 1964 when he returned to his native Twin Cities.
“Higher education is one of the world’s most important institutions because it truly has an ability to have a positive impact on the world, and the world needs St. Thomas’ students and graduates. For the first time ever, Minnesotans have a private university option for D-I caliber education and athletics and we’re proud to be part of making this vision a reality for young people in Minnesota and beyond,” Lee Anderson said.
“St. Thomas has a higher calling in that it develops graduates who are leaders with strong moral character who believe in the mission to serve the common good. These are the kinds of leaders the world needs now more than ever,” said Anderson. “Additionally, St. Thomas’ vision for this new arena is not only good for the university, but for all of St. Paul, the Twin Cities and Minnesota.”
In addition to contributing to nationwide initiatives supporting veterans, his legacy includes expanding St. Paul-based APi Group into a multibillion-dollar business with over 40 independently managed specialty construction companies in almost 300 locations worldwide.
A decades-long evolution
Since officially transitioning from college to university in 1990, St. Thomas has opened new campuses in downtown Minneapolis and Rome, Italy, as well as several new facilities. But the evolution from liberal arts college to comprehensive university has encompassed more than buildings. St. Thomas has also expanded its academic offerings by introducing engineering and law schools, as well as the nationally renowned Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, the Morrison Family College of Health and the Susan S. Morrison School of Nursing. It also founded its Racial Justice Initiative and its two-year Dougherty Family College serving underrepresented students with high financial need.
Shortly after its move to Division I athletics, St. Thomas also broke ground on what will be its largest academic building – the Schoenecker Center for science, technology, engineering, arts and math education. The new Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will be located just across the way from the Schoenecker Center, which is scheduled to open in 2024.
“Even though St. Thomas has been advancing knowledge, changing lives, and strengthening communities for 138 years, our culture of innovation and remarkable philanthropic support make clear: We’re just getting started,” Vischer said.
(info courtesy of St. Thomas)