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Mayor pitches ballpark
by Patrick Sweeney, Aron Kahn and Tim Nelson

The current and future mayors of St. Paul said Wednesday they plan to propose a downtown ballpark for the Minnesota Twins that would be paid for partly through a 3 percent sales tax charged to bars and restaurants throughout the city.

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Mayor-elect Randy Kelly said they'll present the proposal to a new state stadium task force a week from today. The men portrayed the plan as a chance to keep the Twins from being bought out and closed down by Major League Baseball owners.

For Coleman, the ballpark proposal is his third effort to bring the Twins to St. Paul. In 1999, city voters defeated a half-percent across-the-board sales tax increase by a 16 percent margin. Earlier this year, Coleman briefly floated a financing proposal similar to the one he and Kelly plan to further detail next week. A new stadium in St. Paul would not solve all the economic problems of the Twins, Coleman said. But without a new ballpark, the team would not survive long enough to benefit from any eventual restructuring of the baseball industry, he argued.

One of three potential downtown St. Paul stadium sites is diagonally across West Seventh Street from the Xcel Energy Center hockey arena. The other sites are across the Mississippi River from downtown, and in Lowertown near the farmers' market.

Kelly pointed out that Minneapolis officials face a $10 million limit on city spending for a ballpark, making a ballpark effort more difficult there. "A lot of people are looking to St. Paul for a possible solution," he said.

Coleman and Kelly said their proposal would require the Twins or other private sources to contribute half the cost of a $325 million to $350 million open-air stadium.

The state or the Metropolitan Council would borrow the remaining money through the sale of bonds, Coleman said. Then the city would repay the bonds from the proposed 3 percent tax on bar and restaurant sales, and receipts from city parking lots during games.

Coleman said he didn't know how much money either revenue source would produce, but he would obtain estimates by next week.

Neither did he know whether any stadium plan would persuade baseball owners, who voted Nov. 6 to fold two baseball franchises, to keep the Twins in operation.

"I don't know if it's wasted energy," Coleman said.

Twins President Jerry Bell said Wednesday he met with St. Paul leaders recently but did not learn a lot about the proposal. "If they send it to us, we'll look at it," he said.

Coleman's 1999 stadium proposal was dependent on the departure of Twins owner Carl Pohlad, because Coleman believed the Twins owner's fading popularity would burden the ballpark campaign. Pohlad agreed to sell the team to Glen Taylor, principal owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Robert Naegele Jr., lead owner of the Minnesota Wild. The new proposal might not require an ownership change, Kelly said.

Coleman said the latest proposal probably would have to be approved by voters. Kelly did not commit to putting the measure on the ballot. Both men said the proposal probably would be contingent on baseball owners improving the long-term business prospects of small- and medium-market teams through increased revenue sharing and perhaps a salary cap.

As of Wednesday, neither Kelly nor Coleman had presented their proposal to council members, other than Chris Coleman, who represents the downtown area. In interviews, three council members expressed reservations about the proposal.

"We didn't want to raise taxes to fully fund libraries or fix rec center roofs," council member Kathy Lantry said. "Why should we raise taxes for a ball stadium?" However, Lantry said she might feel differently if baseball instituted economic reforms.

Council member Jerry Blakey said a downtown ballpark would be great, but he won't support public money for it without Major League Baseball reforms.

Council member Jim Reiter said he needed more details but was against a similar pitch earlier this year.

Chris Coleman said voters should decide whether the city should support a new stadium.

"We gave them a chance to take a look at this a couple of years ago, and they said no," he said. "But a couple of things have changed since that vote. One is the success of the Wild, and the other is that it's pretty clear that if nothing is done, the Twins are gone."

Council President Don Bostrom was sympathetic. "This is a chance to say, "Don't let the Twins leave town without the chance for the city of St. Paul to talk about this.' "