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St. Paul begins courting Twins
by Tim Nelson

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly is moving ahead on plans to build a new Twins stadium in St. Paul, although he is careful to temper his optimism about baseball's future in Minnesota.

"This is not a slam dunk," Kelly said during a Tuesday news conference. But the mayor said he had already been on the phone with Jim Pohlad, son of the current Twins owner, as well as Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor who had been one of the prospective Twins owners three years ago when St. Paul voters rejected a plan to finance a new stadium with a half-cent sales tax.

Kelly said he believes that Taylor who preferred keeping Minneapolis in the running wouldn't rule out St. Paul as a home for the Twins if he bought them.

And while Pohlad told the mayor that there were no "potential buyers" for the team, Kelly said the Pohlads themselves "were prepared to have discussions with us about a possible business deal."

It was yet another sign that the Twins' prospects are brightening in Minnesota, despite Major League Baseball's threat to eliminate them. On Monday, team president Jerry Bell suggested that the Twins will try to build a ballpark with a roof, rather than "roof ready." The Twins also announced Tuesday that season ticket holders would get first crack at seats in the new ballpark.

And although the bill sitting on the governor's desk doesn't say where that park will be, St. Paul seems to be widening its lead: Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow said there are still no efforts under way to make a bid for the stadium there.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has said he doesn't plan a bid because the bill prevents the city from partnering with Hennepin County. However, the bill allows two or more cities to team up, which Rybak's office won't rule out.

"The city on its own is out of the game, but we're not giving up until the ballpark is built," said Rybak spokeswoman Laura Sether.

Kelly tried to be gracious about the matter: Despite barbs between the two cities after the stadium bill passed in the Legislature on Saturday, he said he would still support a rival bid for a stadium.

"This is not about competition between cities," Kelly said. "If Minneapolis fashions a business agreement with the Twins that is exclusive in nature and requires approval by the voters, my city, this administration, will step aside."

"I would be the first person in Minneapolis urging voters to approve that agreement," Kelly added. Before St. Paul holds a stadium tax referendum, Kelly wants a promise that the Twins would come if the ballot measure passes. Kelly said he is seeking an exclusive arrangement with the team before he asks city residents to sign off on an extra 3 percent tax on bar and restaurant tabs.

But Dave St. Peter, Twins senior vice president for business affairs, said the team was not prepared to reach an exclusive agreement with any city.

"At this point, the Twins remain in an exploratory stage in hopes of having more discussion with all municipalities that express an interest in building a ballpark," he said.

Meanwhile, Kelly will also have some persuading to do in St. Paul: The last ballpark referendum in St. Paul, in 1999, failed by a 16 percentage point margin. A recent St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce poll suggested voters would now approve the proposed food and beverage tax by a 2-to-1 margin, but there is no independent assessment of the electorate's feelings.

Opponents of the 1999 proposal say they're ready to make their case as well. "We're going to talk to voters one on one at the door and on the phone," said Dan McGrath, president of Progressive Minnesota, a St. Paul-based liberal advocacy group. "The details have shifted, but the mayor is still asking taxpayers to foot the bill for Carl Pohlad's new stadium."

Said Dan Dobson, of the group Financial Accountability for New Stadiums, or FANS: "I've already got the bumperstickers ordered. They say, 'Vote No Sept. 10.' "

Tom Welna, owner of the Covington Inn, a St. Paul bed-and-breakfast, said a list of businesses opposed to the food and beverage tax increase now approaches 80.

Leaders of that effort plan to meet with other grass-roots groups to align forces, Welna said. "It's not the role of government to skim off the top of one industry and give to another," Welna said.

Taxpayers in fact are likely to pay at least $12 million a year in restaurants and bars in St. Paul, and as much as $2 million a year more in parking taxes, if the plan flies. The stadium bill also allows host cities to spend as much as $50 million of public money for "infrastructure" around a ballpark.

That's if, of course, the bill is signed by the governor which is only the most immediate matter facing a ballpark plan.

Other steps include:

The Twins and their host city have to reach an agreement on a ballpark site and construction plans.

Major League Baseball owners must rescind their contraction plans and approve the sale of the Twins to a new owner.

The Twins and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission have to settle their ongoing lawsuit over the Twins' lease in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Baseball owners must approve a 30-year guarantee that there will be a major league franchise in Minnesota.

The host city council has to approve a referendum permitting a food, beverage and lodging tax of up to 5 percent, to be on the ballot no sooner than July 16 but no later than Sept. 30. However, Kelly expects to ask for a 3 percent liquor and restaurant tax. (The city can unilaterally implement a $2 parking tax, and the state can implement a 5 percent ticket tax.)

Voters must approve the referendum.

The state's Executive Board (the governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state) has to determine that there are "reasonable prospects" that Major League Baseball will implement economic reform.

At least $120 million in cash must be paid by the team to begin retiring a $330 million state loan, plus payment of about $12 million a year in rent.

"This is a very tight timeframe," Kelly said. "And if we're going to get everything done, we're going to have to move very expeditiously."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.