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Ballpark efforts hit bump in Minneapolis
by Kevin Diaz and Kevin Duchschere

Minneapolis efforts to keep the Minnesota Twins downtown hit a snag in the City Council Friday, even as St. Paul leaders prepared to gather petitions seeking to give voters a chance to approve a citywide half-cent sales tax aimed at building a new baseball stadium on the St. Paul riverfront.

Bruce Ott of St. Paul ate at Joseph's Bar and Restaurant on Friday as Mayor Coleman shook hands after a press conference. On a 6-6 vote, the Minneapolis City Council refused to refer the proposal for a Hennepin County sales tax to committee for further debate.

A seventh member of the council in favor of the plan was absent Friday, but the close vote suggests significant skepticism about the proposal outlined by Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton earlier this week.

Meanwhile, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman said Friday that ballpark proponents will begin collecting signatures next week for a fall referendum.

He said he is no longer insisting that the Twins deal only with St. Paul before embarking on the referendum effort. But he said the Twins have assured him they would help pay for a St. Paul ballpark should they choose to move eastward.

Mayor Coleman visited with Maydelin Caestro, left, and her mother, Maria, during breakfast Friday at Joseph's Bar and Restaurant. "The Twins are enthusiastic about keeping baseball in Minnesota. . . . Clearly if they can stay where they are, they would like to do that," Coleman said.

Even though the mayor expressed patience, St. Paul clearly is in a race against deadlines both procedural and political.

In order to place the referendum on the November ballot, St. Paul ballpark supporters must collect about 5,000 signatures by July 2. Coleman aide Erich Mische said St. Paul hopes for an exclusive agreement from the Twins in the next two to three weeks before officials and supporters pour time and money into a referendum campaign. So does Larry Dowell, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, who said he will recommend Tuesday that his group help raise money for the petition drive.

"We will not be going any further or supporting the plan unless there is a clear, complete commitment by the Twins and the Pohlad family to make St. Paul their home. Our interest in this will cease unless that commitment is forthcoming later this month or early next month," Dowell said.

But in a written statement issued after the Minneapolis vote Friday, the Twins remained resolutely noncommittal, saying they support Coleman's efforts to put the ballpark to a ballot test. But, the statement continued, "We will continue to listen to the city of Minneapolis or any others who come forward with another plan aimed at keeping the Twins in Minnesota."

Symbolic opposition

As Coleman proceeds with his plans, Minneapolis stadium supporters believe they must act quickly to head off St. Paul.

So they downplayed the significance of Friday's council vote. But the council's division underscores fears in the Minneapolis business community that the political will to get involved in a stadium deal is lacking.

"The people proposing this resolution did not do their homework," said Council Member Joe Biernat, whose vote against the stadium plan signals a change of heart from his past support for Minneapolis stadium proposals. "The dynamics have changed significantly in the last two years."

The stalled resolution calls for a partnership with Hennepin County that would pay for a new downtown stadium and a host of other sports and nonsports proj ects through a half-cent countywide sales tax.

While minimizing its significance, a top city development official said Friday's council vote signaled an uphill battle for public stadium financing. "It's a wake-up call to everyone in charge," said Keith Ford, acting director of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. "No question the leadership has to make the case for putting a plan together, and that hasn't happened yet."

The potential tie-breaking vote is Council Member Brian Herron, who has signed on as a sponsor of the resolution. He was at a health conference in New Jersey Friday but is expected to be back for the next council meeting on June 25.

Council President Jackie Cherryhomes and other backers of Minneapolis' fledgling finance plan said seven of the council's 13 members are expected to favor the resolution supporting the plan.

"Today's vote was really nothing," said Amy Phenix, a spokeswoman for Sayles Belton. "Frankly, one person was missing, and the issue will be taken up in two weeks. It won't materially impact anything."

Other stadium backers, frustrated by their stumble on what was expected to be a routine step, accused the antistadium forces of trying to stifle debate on the question of public funding. "This wasn't a deal, this was supposed to be the beginning of a conversation," said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy.

But stadium opponents claimed victory all the same. "This gave the signal that there are a lot of people opposed to the stadium proposal," said Council Member Jim Niland. "It's obviously significant."

Minneapolis council members voting against the stadium resolution were Niland, Biernat, Dore Mead, Lisa McDonald, Lisa Goodman and Barret Lane. Voting in favor were Cherryhomes, Colvin Roy, Paul Ostrow, Joan Campbell, Kathy Thurber and Barb Johnson.

Assuming that committee referral passes at the next full council meeting on June 25, it would be another three weeks before the resolution returns to the full council for final approval, most likely at the next regularly scheduled meeting of July 16 -- two weeks after the petition deadline for the St. Paul referendum.

Wooing voters

Any new stadium construction efforts are likely to face a difficult challenge in winning support from state political leaders. Gov. Jesse Ventura Friday reiterated his reluctance to use public funds to help professional sports teams. And repeatedly during the 1990s, legislators have rebuffed attempts to spend state money in improving or replacing the Metrodome.

At a morning news conference held at Joseph's Bar and Restaurant, an eatery near one of the proposed stadium sites on St. Paul's West Side, Coleman said his city's plan is superior because it gives voters a chance to register their views. That may help sway legislative support for state funding of a ballpark, he said.

"Our path is difficult, there's no question about it, but I can't conceive of any scenario in which the Legislature would allow local politicians to impose a tax on people without being heard. . . . I believe the only path is the path that lets the voters be heard, and that is the path that we're on," he said.

Stadium proponents don't believe that getting the question on the St. Paul ballot will be very hard. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the Capital City Partnership are hiring National Voter Outreach of Carson City, Nev., to coordinate the petition drive; Dowell estimated the cost at less than $100,000. Canvassers will go door-to-door to solicit signatures from registered St. Paul voters.

Coleman said the language on the petition, to be finalized Tuesday, will ask St. Paul residents whether they are willing to accept a half-cent citywide sales tax to cover the city's portion of stadium costs.

Officials believe that those costs will range from $100 million to $116 million, about a third of the total cost of a St. Paul ballpark that would be shared equally with the state and the team. The city's share may include expenses associated with preparing a site, which have been estimated from $50 million to $80 million.

The city's current half-cent sales tax, adopted in the early 1990s to finance improvements to the St. Paul Civic Center, brought in $10.6 million last year. City officials estimate that the new tax would return, on average, $10 million annually. The money would be used to pay back the city's contribution, whether that be in the form of a loan or bonds.

St. Paul Council Member Chris Coleman, who represents the downtown district where a stadium most likely would be built, joined the mayor at the news conference and said he believes that a ballpark would boost downtown's economic vitality.

Council Member Jay Benanav said he, like fellow Council Member Coleman, approves of the planned vote, adding that he would take the voters' wishes seriously if it succeeded.

Benanav also said he is skeptical about the economic impact of a ballpark. "I look at the Metrodome. We had the same arguments 20 years ago. It's not a bad area, but it's certainly not thriving," he said.