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ST. PAUL: Twins research ballpark viability
by Aron Kahn

Consultants hired by the Minnesota Twins are conducting crucial traffic, parking and market research studies that the team will use soon in deciding whether to commit to a $330 million ballpark in St. Paul.

Needing vital information that would determine whether a St. Paul ballpark could be a financial success, the Twins have engaged at least two consulting firms to produce a wide range of data on a tight deadline.

Mayor Randy Kelly has said he will not hold a ballpark referendum of city voters unless the Twins agree in advance to play at the stadium. Moreover, the city's business leaders say they won't raise money for a get-out-the-vote campaign, costing as much as $1 million, without a Twins commitment.

The referendum would be expected to be held on Sept. 10, primary election day in Minnesota. By law, the St. Paul City Council has until July 23 to authorize a ballpark referendum for that ballot.

The consultants are studying a range of key factors that would affect the stadium. For example, they're trying to determine how many Twins fans in the west metro area would choose to be season ticket holders at a St. Paul ballpark and how many businesses would be corporate sponsors.

The traffic and parking elements are also vital. Consultants are trying to figure out if the freeways and other roads leading to downtown St. Paul can easily move 40,000 fans in and out of the city core, as well as how many additional parking facilities would be needed.

"We are assessing a host of those issues, as any major league team would do in trying to make a business decision on the long-term viability of the project,'' said Dave St. Peter, the Twins' senior vice president for business affairs.

Asked if he thought the team could obtain the needed information before July 23, St. Peter said, "that would be our intent.''

The consultants are studying three proposed ballpark sites in St. Paul:

The Gateway site: Across West Seventh Street from Xcel Energy Center which probably would require the relocation of the Dorothy Day Center and perhaps other buildings.

Lowertown: A former Gillette Co. site, a large building now operated by Diamond Products Inc., which sits adjacent to the Farmers' Market and would require demolition of the building.

West Side: The flats area across the river from downtown St. Paul, a site that lacks a nearby freeway connection.

Should the Twins not have all the information they want before July 23, they may ask Kelly to soften the language of the team's pledge to St. Paul, say persons close to the deliberations. In other words, the Twins might propose language that would tie the team to the project unless unforeseen information bodes ill for the stadium.

It's unclear whether Kelly and the City Council would agree to conditional wording.

Under the 2002 ballpark legislation, the ballpark's host city must conduct a referendum on local taxes that would help fund the stadium. In the case of St. Paul, the levy is currently expected to be a 3 percent sales tax at bars and restaurants.

Neither St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly nor his stadium specialist, Martha Fuller, could be reached for comment late Friday.

If the deal between the Twins and St. Paul falls apart for any reason, including a failed referendum, Minneapolis could still be a site. Although Minneapolis voters have limited the city to spending a total of $10 million on a ballpark, it could try to persuade the 2003 Legislature to allow Hennepin County to help it with the financing. Such an effort failed this year.

In deciding in the next three weeks whether to cast their lot with St. Paul, the Twins will be weighing the odds of convincing state lawmakers and a new governor to make the Minneapolis option more viable. The potential for that option, at least, was guaranteed recently when the Twins and baseball agreed, as part of lawsuit settlement, that the team would play in the Twin Cities through the 2003 season.

Regardless of the site, there are many obstacles beyond the referendum still to overcome. The ballpark bill, for example, 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.

Meanwhile, St. Peter said the Twins have been impressed by St. Paul's efforts to land the ballpark.

"It's very clear that there's a desire and a dedication to this project from people throughout the mayor's office and the business community,'' he said. "As an organization, you take that to heart. We'll keep that top of the mind as we work through issues of a possible business agreement.''