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Twins appear ready to throw out opening stadium pitch
by James Walsh and Curt Brown

In a legislative session where stadium talk was expected to center on plans for a new football palace to house the would-be Super Bowl Champion Minnesota Vikings, the recently hapless Twins appear ready to throw out the opening pitch.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Minnesota Twins, whose last stadium campaign in 1997 was whipped by public opinion and legislators, had said they'd wait for the Vikings to take the lead.

Although both ballclubs still are expected to propose stadium bills within the next month, the Twins have been far more active, using a mix of savvy tactics and new funding ideas to resurrect their image and their chances.

Even some legislators who have opposed previous stadium efforts admit they're interested by two recent proposals for a Twins ballpark funded solely or largely by private money.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, calls the Twins' pitch -- possibly involving an interest-free state loan -- "a very intriguing plan."

And those who have been open to baseball's blandishments in the past praise the new approach.

"I can tell you right now, the Twins have the best strategy," said Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna. "They aren't coming [to the Capitol]. They're meeting people for breakfast, lunch, outside of here. They're just telling their story. And the thing that they're selling, which I like, is that they would get a commitment from the league on salary caps and revenue sharing."

Both recently announced ideas have the Twins making a sizable investment without asking for direct public funding. One proposal, being burnished by the private group New Ballpark Inc., would have the team and area investors putting up nearly all of the money for an urban scaled-down ballpark. The plan being touted by the group that includes prominent downtown business executives such as Jim Campbell of Wells Fargo, could involve the issuance of preferred stock in the ballclub.

The other, floated by the team, involves a state loan to be guaranteed by team owner Carl Pohlad and repaid over the next 20 years.

The team is also smoothing feathers ruffled in past stadium debates by being careful to make no overt threats or demands. There has been the whispered specter of Major League Baseball buying out its least successful teams, but mainly the Twins are doing a political and fiscal version of the old soft shoe.

The Vikings, their political swagger softened by their playoff pasting just one game away from the Super Bowl, have been even quieter.

Several legislative leaders say they have yet to hear from the team or catch of whiff of a Vikings stadium bill. Instead, the team continues to quietly marshal its grass-roots, public relations and lobbying forces in preparation for a full-scale blitz expected in March.

Working the room

Eager to demonstrate that they have learned from past mistakes, Twins officials have loudly listened to groups that many believe will be the key to a successful ballpark campaign -- business, labor and the community.

Whereas much of the Twins' 1997 push was engineered behind closed doors, this time around the Twins have citizen committees putting forth ballpark proposals and talking about how the team is a "community asset."

The plan the Twins have floated closely resembles one recommended by Minnesotans for Major League Baseball, a citizens' group convened by the Twins last year to study the survival of baseball here.

In addition to the private money and state loan, an unidentified host city would pump in an additional $50 million worth of infrastructure and site-preparation work. That amount is a problem for Minneapolis city leaders, because voters in 1997 approved a city charter amendment that limits city spending on pro sports facilities to $10 million unless voters approve more.

Finally, legislators would make the package contingent on Major League Baseball changing its economic structure -- creating greater revenue-sharing among teams and imposing some kind of salary limit. Those moves have been recommended by a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by team owners and could be part of upcoming contract negotiations with the players' union.

However, Twins officials say they won't officially release a plan until they have something that business, labor, community and legislative leaders can rally behind.

When asked if the team would propose legislation this session, Twins President Jerry Bell said, "It will be at least a couple weeks before we know."

And the Vikings?

Several legislators say the Twins' pitch may be putting the Vikings on the spot.

Until now, Vikings owner Red McCombs has offered to contribute $100 million toward the estimated $400 million cost of a new football stadium. And the Vikings have said nothing about a loan.

Said Sviggum: "The clock is ticking for the Vikings to come forward. Our plate's full. They need to get moving."

Why the silence?

Vikings consultant Lester Bagley said the team is simply getting all its ducks in a row.

For two years, Bagley said, the team has been laying the groundwork of its campaign, talking about the growing financial needs that cannot be met by the revenue-challenged Metrodome.

Vikings officials still hope to persuade the football Gophers to join them in a stadium at the University of Minnesota. Some legislators have said there would be less opposition to building a stadium for the university, calling such a partnership the Vikings' only chance for success. The university has been noncommittal. The Vikings are working on stadium designs and revenue plans they hope will sway university officials.

The team has hired lobbyists who worked on the 1994 public buyout of Target Center by the city of Minneapolis to help their push at the Legislature. And to make their case with the public, the team has hired the Weber Shandwick public relations firm.

Still to come

Other stakeholders also have irons in the fire.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Dome, is expected this week to consider a tour of outstate Minnesota in hopes of building support for its proposal to renovate the 1982 facility into a football-only stadium for the Vikings and Gophers.

And it's worth keeping an eye on St. Paul.

After all, outgoing Mayor Norm Coleman successfully navigated choppy political waters to replace the 25-year-old Civic Center arena with the $130 million Xcel Energy Center. The swank arena, which opened last fall, was financed with $48 million in interest-free state loans, $17 million in state grants and $65 million from city coffers. With the National Hockey League's new Minnesota Wild hockey team selling out every game, Coleman said: "People can see a new facility working and creating economic development in a core city. That has to change the dynamics."

He said the economics haven't been worked out for his latest Twins stadium effort, but he hopes to cobble together a deal that includes $150 million from the team plus users' fees and private money that would only require state bonding authority to lower financing costs.

In the swirl of possibilities, one thing is clear: The public should get ready to hear the stadium call. And, as the Vikings' Bagley said, "until this issue is addressed, they're not going to stop hearing about it."