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St. Paul: Ballpark going, going...gone?
by Tim Nelson

A plan to move the Minnesota Twins to a new baseball stadium in St. Paul isn't dead yet, but the prognosis isn't good, Mayor Randy Kelly told stadium proponents and other officials Tuesday.

"At this point, we're pretty much at an impasse," Kelly told members of the St. Paul business community and the City Council at a late morning briefing in his office.

The mayor offered the assessment on the eve of what was to be a critical day for the future of the Twins. The council has exactly one week to put a 3 percent food-and-beverage tax proposed to pay for part of the ballpark on the Sept. 10 primary election ballot.

Kelly had hoped to have the measure before the council today. He plans to meet again with the Twins, but reaching a business deal with the team in time for a September referendum looks to be "extremely, extremely difficult," Kelly said.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, the Twins said they aren't ready to give up, either.

"There have been challenges, and we're still awaiting some information that would be essential to any business looking to make a decision like this," said Dave St. Peter, Twins vice president for baseball operations. "But we remain engaged and anticipate meeting again with city officials. We haven't given up on an effort to build a stadium in St. Paul."

On Monday, several sources close to the negotiations said the Twins had told the city that the team would not make a commitment to St. Paul, a condition Kelly has insisted on before going ahead with a referendum.

If neither side changes its position, the standoff likely signals the end of months of wheeling, dealing and bare-knuckle politics that followed an announcement by Major League Baseball last November that it planned to eliminate two baseball teams, the Twins and the Montreal Expos.

The threat prompted the Minnesota Legislature to pass, and the governor to sign, a long-sought ballpark bill in May, the result of nine years of pleading by the team for a new stadium.

Language in the law effectively eliminated Minneapolis from the running for a new ballpark.

St. Paul almost lured the team away before: A Twins-sponsored ballpark plan went on the November ballot in 1999 but failed when voters turned down a proposed citywide half-cent sales tax.

Kelly attributed the difficulties this year to Twins owner Carl Pohlad's expressed interest in selling the team.

If the Twins are to be spared contraction, they will have to find a new owner and at this point, it would have to be a buyer willing to pay $120 million above and beyond the cost of the team.

That's the proposed share the Twins are currently required to kick into a new $330 million park, and team officials have said no prospective buyers are even contemplating that deal.

Kelly, though, believes the city is still prepared to hold up its end of the bargain.

He has proposed a food and beverage tax to help pay off about $200 million in state financing for the park. The team would pay the rest.

"We came forward with a very, very strong financial proposal that we offered to the Minnesota Twins," Kelly said. "It was, I think in (Twins president) Jerry Bell's words 'very impressive.' "

It apparently hasn't been enough, however.

Kelly said the Twins are still studying parking and traffic in St. Paul and have yet to complete a marketing study that would convince them that a move to St. Paul would be financially viable.

The studies could be finished within a week, but that probably won't be in time to satisfy legal requirements for the referendum required in this year's ballpark law, according to St. Paul City Council President Dan Bostrom.

The City Council will schedule a ballpark discussion for its July 17 meeting and have proposed ballot language ready, but Bostrom said it would be only a "place holder" on the agenda.

"I can't imagine anybody saying we'll put something on the ballot for 30 years' worth of bonds with a team that says, 'Well, we don't think we're going to be here for 30 years,' " Bostrom said. "That is just totally unacceptable. That's what this comes down to if the city of St. Paul is going to do this, we need a commitment from the team."

Still, even the most ardent opponents of taxpayer-subsidized ballpark plans don't think Minnesotans have seen the last of the Twins.

The professional baseball players union has a grievance pending that could stop the league's contraction plans.

An arbitrator is expected to rule on the matter as early as next week, and players have historically fared well against team owners off the field.

The league also agreed to delay contraction until at least 2004 as part of a settlement between the Twins and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which sued the team to stop it from breaking its Minneapolis Metrodome lease this year.

That means the Twins will have at least one at-bat left at the Capitol for another ballpark deal. The current plan effectively expires July 23.

"We're relieved for the time being," said Dan McGrath, director of Progressive Minnesota, a liberal advocacy group that opposed the 1999 plan. "But I think it's a given, if St. Paul doesn't put something on the ballot, that Carl Pohlad will return to the Legislature and try to extort more money out of Minnesota politicians."

"We sure hope that the creative energy that went into this could go into something else, like the St. Paul public schools, or keeping libraries and recreation centers open," McGrath said.