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Hennepin County chairman to offer Twins ballpark plan
by Rochelle Olson and Conrad deFiebre, Tony Kennedy and Robert Whereatt contributing


Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat will jump into the stadium sweepstakes today by asking the six other county commissioners for the go-ahead to make a $370 million Twins stadium proposal to the Legislature.

If commissioners agree, Opat intends to have a bill introduced that seeks legislative approval to levy various taxes for an open-air but "roof-ready" ballpark on land behind the Target Center downtown.

"We think Minnesota's better off with Major League Baseball and we think Hennepin County's the best place for it," Opat said Monday.

Meanwhile, two bills aimed at building a Twins stadium in St. Paul advanced in their first hearings in the House on Monday evening after being amended to rule out state financial participation. On divided voice votes, the Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee referred the bills to other committees without recommendation for passage, keeping them alive for now.

One bill for a stadium in St. Paul, backed by St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, Rep. Tom Osthoff, DFL-St. Paul, and business, labor and bar and restaurant representatives, would impose a 3 percent citywide tax on food, liquor and entertainment.

It also would impose a $1 ticket tax at the ballpark.

The other, sponsored by Reps. Michael Paymar and Andy Dawkins, both St. Paul DFLers, would use a wide variety of city and metropolitan taxes that were recommended by a state stadium task force.

Both of the St. Paul bills envision an open-air stadium seating 35,000 to 40,000 fans and costing $300 million to $350 million.

So far, the Twins haven't gotten behind either plan, although both would require significant financing by the team.

"They're staying out of it until somebody says there's a deal," Osthoff said.

Said Kelly: "The Twins' contribution is still to be negotiated. We know that any bill going through the process is going to shift and change." No direct talks on the St. Paul plan have been held with either Twins owner Carl Pohlad or potential buyer Donald Watkins, Kelly added.

The Opat plan

The Opat plan would require the Twins to contribute $125 million. Private business would need to put up $50 million, probably through the preferred stock plan proposed by New Ballpark Inc., the Minneapolis business leaders spearheading a stadium effort. "It's a starting point, not a finishing point," Opat said.

Helping Opat assemble the plan have been Commissioners Mark Stenglein and Peter McLaughlin. Opat said the group tried to adhere to three principles:

The team must pay part of the cost.

The business community and others who use or benefit from the ballpark should help.

Spending shouldn't conflict with core county functions, such as caring for the poor or repairing bridges.

Twins President Jerry Bell said he needs to learn details of the proposal before discussing how much money would come from the baseball club. Last year, Pohlad pledged $100 million toward a new stadium, but it wasn't a standing offer, Bell said.

Opat also hopes to include a provision in his bill to require negotiations with the team if the Twins are sold at a price enhanced by a new stadium. The intent would be to capture for taxpayers some of the profit from the sale.

On Monday, Opat met with the Minneapolis legislative delegation to measure backing of his effort. If the delegation had squashed his proposal, he was prepared to put it down and walk away.

Still, he has yet to find a House sponsor for the bill. He said Senate Tax Chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and Roy Terwilliger, R-Edina, would carry the bill in the Senate.

At the Minneapolis delegation meeting, Opat was joined by Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Paul Ostrow. Rybak declined to comment. "We're really letting the county take the lead right now," Rybak's spokeswoman Laura Sether said.

Minneapolis leaders and residents have been cool to stadium proposals for years. The city also is bound by a charter amendment passed overwhelmingly in 1997 that requires a citywide referendum for city funding of pro sports facilities that exceeds $10 million. Under Opat's proposal, the county would levy the taxes.

House Tax Chairman Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, reacted coolly to the Opat plan, noting that Minneapolis voters resoundingly voted not to tax themselves for a stadium. He suggested that Minneapolis residents should again vote on whether they want this plan. St. Paul voters voted down a stadium financing plan in 1999.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, who also has a stadium proposal combining user fees and private money, praised the move of Hennepin County leaders and criticized the notion of more referenda.

"Any time a politician doesn't want to make a tough decision, it's just like they got the flu, they spit out 'referendum, referendum.' It's fine, it's part of democracy, but part of the reason we came down here was to make tough decisions," Johnson said.

Bell said the Twins want a site that can accommodate a retractable roof, but the team remains neutral on the issue of what site is best.

The St. Paul plans

One of the St. Paul bills -- the Paymar-Dawkins measure -- calls for a voter referendum on the proposed St. Paul taxes, while the other does not.

Jobs and Economic Development Committee Chairman Dan McElroy, R-Burnsville, said a referendum may be added to the Kelly-Osthoff plan at another committee stop, after the sponsors produce more information about a "reverse referendum" allowed in the city charter.

The Kelly-Osthoff plan, which also cleared its first Senate committee last week, was sent to the House Capital Investment Committee. The Paymar-Dawkins bill was sent to the Taxes Committee.