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Twins ballpark in St. Paul faces eight obstacles
by Aron Khan

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 carnival midway.

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 Pohlad said.

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 ballpark.


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 stadium.

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 stadium.

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 potential bidder.

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.