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St. Paul, Minneapolis, Hennepin County prepare for ballpark showdown
by Rochelle Olson

With Minnesota's long-running ballpark funding battle appearing near a conclusion, the fight for home-field advantage has begun.

Even as Minnesota House members voted their chamber's approval Monday of a plan to build a new ballpark for the Twins, political and business leaders from St. Paul, Minneapolis and Hennepin County staked their claims to the proposed stadium.

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly pushed a trio of potential downtown sites in his city, while 11 Minneapolis City Council members told Gov. Jesse Ventura they wanted a a roof-ready ballpark built near the Target Center.

And while Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said, "The last thing this community needs is another divisive fight over a Twins ballpark," he also made it clear he doesn't intend to stand by while St. Paul "steals" a business as lucrative as Major League Baseball.

Despite the flurry, a site won't be decided upon soon. The Legislature must compromise on a funding bill and a yet-to-be-created stadium commission must deliberate.

In addition, public votes are likely in each city.

Nonetheless, spinning and sniping was well under way on Monday.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said now that Kelly has identified sites, the Minneapolis group will have ammunition to criticize St. Paul's plans and counter the "whisper campaign" he said Kelly has mounted against the Target Center site.

At his news conference Monday, Kelly didn't bother to lower his voice. A stadium "is more important to St. Paul than I think it is to Minneapolis," he said. "It can have a greater impact in propelling St. Paul forward."

He promoted three sites: one in Lowertown, one on the West Side river flats and a third near the Xcel Energy Center. None is owned by the city. The mayor is proposing a 3 percent surcharge on bars and restaurant revenues and game tickets to finance the city's share of a new ballpark.

Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow countered that Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials have only one proposed site: the best location for the Twins and the region.

"We've done the planning," he said, noting that a citizens' panel recommended the site.

But despite Ostrow's comments and the letter that 11 council members sent to Ventura Monday, the council has not been in the forefront of stadium efforts so far.

Council members recently balked at a resolution endorsing Opat's stadium proposal, which includes ticket taxes, a downtown Minneapolis entertainment tax and a 6 percent countywide rental car tax. But under persistent pressure from Opat, and with the House plan gathering steam over the weekend, they began to see the danger of indecision.

"If we're not weighing in on it, we're going to be left in the dust," Council Member Barbara Johnson said.

Still, two council members declined to sign the letter -- Dan Niziolek and Paul Zerby. Opat and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein pushed hard to get the other 11 signatures.

The letter calls the Twins a statewide asset and emphasizes the necessity of a referendum on any new taxes earmarked for the stadium. Minneapolis city leaders said the plan should utilize user fees to "the greatest extent possible."

Regardless of location, the Minneapolis council encouraged a plan that requires a large minimum contribution from the team and the private sector. The letter endorses the $165 million in private investment proposed by Ventura and included in both the House and Senate bills.

St. Paul plans

The proposed St. Paul sites are familiar turf and have been discussed before. Former Mayor Norm Coleman even dismissed the location near the Xcel Energy Center because of the difficulty of relocating nearby housing and the Catholic Charities' Dorothy Day Center for homeless.

But Steven Kearney, Catholic Charities' St. Paul housing security director, said that moving "wasn't out of the question" at that time. "There was a package offered, and we didn't negate it," he said.

In hopes of demonstrating support for a St. Paul stadium, Kelly brought business and citizen leaders to his news conference.

John Labosky, president of the Capital Cities Partnership, said the St. Paul sites could all accommodate roof-ready ballparks and the amenities the Twins want -- 40,000 seats and three levels of luxury seating between first and third bases. (The partnership was formed by area CEOs to promote downtown St. Paul.)

He spoke of a historic-looking ballpark made of "brick and stone and natural materials" that would blend into the urban fabric of the city.

Those are familiar descriptions for anyone following the stadium discussions in Minneapolis during the past two years. The New Ballpark Inc. group that included Minneapolis business and civic leaders, also envisioned an intimate ballpark.

But Kelly's proposals could be costly. He concedes that site acquistion and preparation costs at some sites could be substantial. He declined to provide numbers, but previous estimates ranged from $25 million to $65 million.

Kelly's spokeswoman Laura Mortenson said that aside from market conditions, she has no reason to believe those estimates have changed significantly. Preparing a site to become ballpark-ready would cost between $10 million and $20 million, she said.

Twins President Jerry Bell said the team hasn't yet focused on locations.

Bell said he hoped that a professional planner would be hired to evaluate competing sites. But the two sides aren't waiting to be invited to make their claims.

"We have the political support and the will," Kelly said.

"They may have the will but we have the fan base and we have a site that requires minimal investment in infrastructure," countered Minneapolis Council Member Johnson.