Twins ballpark in St. Paul faces eight obstacles
For better or worse, a new Minnesota Twins ballpark would be among St. Paul
Mayor Randy Kelly's most important legacies. But the blueprint provided by Gov.
Jesse Ventura and the Legislature has more trap doors than a haunted house on a
If Kelly can sidestep the pitfalls, St. Paul will go from a town that had no
major league sports teams two years ago to a town with two bona fide ones, after
the Minnesota Wild's flamboyant entrance in 2000.
But it would be no surprise if a new stadium never makes the leap from the
drawing boards to Lowertown or to a site in the long shadow of the Wild's hefty
home. Kelly will bring 28 years of political experience to the task of trying to
build a ballpark, but at least eight obstacles lie in the way, and many are out
of his control:
New owner: According to his executives, Twins proprietor Carl Pohlad
has no intention of owning the team any longer, and the for-sale sign hasn't
attracted any suitors whom the Twins consider suitable.
"They haven't exactly been breaking down the doors,'' said Jim Pohlad,
the owner's eldest son. If there is no sale, Carl Pohlad will have to consider
retaining the team or closing it down as part of baseball's threatened
contraction plan, should that plan come to pass.
30-year guarantee: The ballpark bill requires Major League Baseball to
promise to maintain a franchise here for 30 years. The unprecedented guarantee
will be difficult to exact because new ballparks in Detroit, Pittsburgh and
Milwaukee are having trouble luring fans. Baseball would have to gamble that a
new Twins home would be an unqualified success.
Voter referendum: Residents of the host city must approve specific
sales taxes to help pay the stadium debt. In the case of St. Paul, Kelly
proposes a 3 percent tax on bars and restaurants. The vote must be held by Sept.
30, before which boosters will launch a public relations campaign.
In 1999, a St. Paul referendum on a half-percent general sales tax for a
ballpark went down by a 16 percent margin. Progressive Minnesota, a liberal
advocacy group that helped defeat that referendum, said it will take aim this
time as well.
"We're going to talk to voters one-on-one at the door and on the
phone," Progressive Minnesota President Dan McGrath said. "The details
have shifted, but the mayor is still asking taxpayers to foot the bill for Carl
Pohlad's new stadium."
Baseball economics: A major reason for the reluctance of prospective
Twins owners is baseball's lack of a salary cap, which the National Football
League and National Basketball Association use to control expenses. As a result,
big-market teams have a greater chance to succeed financially — and, hence, on
the field. Baseball's minimal revenue-sharing plan has done little to help
small- and medium-market teams pump up revenue.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says the sport is in grave financial shape,
though the players dispute the claim. Minnesota's executive board (the governor,
attorney general, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state) must determine
there are "reasonable prospects" that baseball will create economic
reform before the first spade goes into the earth.
Player contract: The labor agreement with players expired in November,
and the possibility of a strike or lockout looms this season. Baseball took
several years to recover attendance after a strike in 1994. A labor problem this
time could kill the ballpark plan, if for no other reason than attendance would
be expected to plummet.
Twins' payment: Although the Twins celebrated winning a ballpark bill
after seven years of trying, the team made it clear the legislation has many
stumbling blocks. Add this one: Will a new owner agree to pay $120 million
upfront for the ballpark after paying Pohlad roughly $150 million for the team?
The math already has scared away several potential buyers.
Twins' agreement with city: The Twins and the city have to reach an
accord on a ballpark site, plus construction and parking plans. The Twins also
have to agree to pay $12 million a year in rent to the city, which would own the
ballpark and use the rent for operating and maintaining the stadium. Some
members of the St. Paul City Council are feeling ignored by the process so far.
They may erect more hoops for ballpark boosters to jump through.
Contraction: Baseball ann-ounced last fall it planned to eliminate two
teams, later identified as the Twins and the Montreal Expos. The Twins followed
by telling the Minnesota Legislature that if they got a new ballpark, they
probably wouldn't be eliminated. Debate has raged since about baseball's
sincerity, and its ability to carry out the contraction plan.
"The commissioner has clearly said he's committed to contraction,'' Jim
Clark Griffith, son of late Twins owner Calvin Griffith, believes that court
action and other factors will stop contraction, and that ultimately baseball
will discover contraction simply would be too expensive to be feasible. What
seems clear is that the Twins' contraction chances are greater without a new
SO, WHY ST. PAUL?
So, why is St. Paul the front-runner? Because Minneapolis is handicapped by a
charter amendment prohibiting that city from spending more than $10 million on a
A legislative attempt to allow Hennepin County to help Minneapolis with the
financing was beaten back by a coalition of opponents, including suburban
Hennepin legislators who didn't want their communities taxed for a Minneapolis
Some Minneapolis business and civic leaders, along with allies in Hennepin
County government, are trying to figure out ways for the county to help the
city, exclusive of levying taxes. One idea would have the county build parking
ramps in the city and then dedicate the revenue to the ballpark. Officially,
Mayor R.T. Rybak and County Board Chairman Mike Opat reluctantly say that it's
St. Paul's ballpark to win or lose.
The Twins are sympathetic to the Minneapolis cause because they believe they
would get more offers from prospective buyers if the suitors have two cities and
two sites from which to choose. But who are those potential bidders?
Twins President Jerry Bell said the Twins have not received a bid since
February, when Alabama businessman Donald Watkins made a pitch. The Twins said
they didn't believe Watkins had the financial capacity to follow through on the
offer, a claim Watkins disputed.
But when the ballpark bill passed a week ago, Bell said two prospective
buyers had been talking with the team and were disappointed that a Minneapolis
site was handicapped. Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who tried to buy
the team in 1999 as part of the failed St. Paul referendum effort, was one
The other? No one's talking, but Griffith has been trying for weeks to put
together an ownership group, and Best Buy Chairman Richard Schulze has mulled
over a purchase. Griffith, by the way, says he will not bid on the team under
the current legislation, and he questions whether anybody will.
"It's too expensive for anyone to pay for the team and then turn around
and pay $120 million for the stadium,'' Griffith said. Instead, he says he would
try to make his own deal if the financial structure dictated by the Legislature
fails to produce a ballpark.
The financing for the ballpark appealed to legislators politically more than
on considerations of merit. Facing elections in the fall, lawmakers will be able
to tell constituents that no statewide taxes are involved in the project, and
that taxes in St. Paul or Minneapolis will be imposed only after a successful
referendum of local voters.
If no ballpark is built and the Twins leave town, the governor and
legislators can say they tried to keep them. The economics work this way:
• The Twins would pay $120 million upfront to begin retiring a $330 million
state loan. Subject to the referendum, any host community could levy a variety
of taxes on bars, restaurants, lodging or parking to assist in the loan
repayment, producing no less than $12 million a year for that purpose. If the
combined funds are not sufficient to pay the debt, the city could impose a tax
on ballpark tickets to make up the difference.
• The Twins would get all the revenue from the ballpark but would have to
pay annual rent to cover operating expenses, estimated at $10 million to $12
million a year.
There are three proposed ballpark sites in St. Paul: across West Seventh
Street from Xcel Energy Center — which probably would require the relocation
of the Dorothy Day Center; a former Gillette Co. site, now owned by Diamond
Products, that's adjacent to the Farmers' Market in Lowertown and would require
demolition of a large building and relocation of the business; and the West Side
flats across the river from downtown St. Paul, a site that lacks a nearby
interstate freeway connection.
Minneapolis, while hampered politically, has a firm site just northwest of
Target Center — an unencumbered surface parking lot near large public parking
ramps, two freeways and a future light-rail station.
The ballpark game is far from over.
Tim Nelson contributed to this story.