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Coleman fields council's questions as he reports on stadium proposal
by Kevin Duchschere

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman played a deft game of pepper Wednesday at City Hall, fielding several sharp questions from City Council members as he described his ballpark dreams for the city.

Council Member Jay Benanav questioned the wisdom of having the city subsidize a stadium for the Minnesota Twins when Major League Baseball remains in economic disrepair and the team owner is a billionaire.

"I really have serious reservations about the time and energy spent on this, and what impact it will have on our citizens," Benanav added, urging that Coleman spend more time on such issues as providing more playgrounds and improving public safety.

Coleman turned crimson as he responded, saying the new ballpark would provide huge increases in jobs and tax revenues for St. Paul.

"I have no doubt in my mind that my job, my responsibility to the people in this community, is to find ways to generate economic activity to create more jobs, to create a stronger tax base, so that we can deliver the very services of which you're concerned," he told Benanav. "This is more than just about baseball. . . . If done well, it can accelerate downtown housing . . . and increase street-level activity and vibrancy."

Council Member Jerry Blakey noted a recent Forbes story that listed three of Minnesota's pro sports team owners as billionaires and asked why a ballpark couldn't be paid for with private funds. Coleman said his staff's analysis justified asking the Twins for a third of the cost, based on the team's cash flow.

The council had asked for the mayor's report several weeks ago, before Coleman released five site blueprints and opened a petition drive to put a half-cent sales-tax question on the November ballot. That tax would finance the city's portion of a $330 million ballpark, with the cost to be shared more or less equally with the state and the team.

Council Member Chris Coleman backed the mayor's analysis of the economic impact of a stadium, urging the council to concentrate on the potential benefits to the city rather than on the wealth of team owners.

Left unmentioned was how Mayor Coleman and other stadium supporters would persuade state legislators, who repeatedly have rebuffed public funding stadium plans, to contribute more than $100 million to the effort.

Petition drive

Citing figures from a 1997 report by the Arthur Andersen firm on the economic impact of a new Twins ballpark, Coleman estimated that a ballpark would produce $84.7 million annually in direct spending and create 725 full-time jobs. "I believe this is a unique opportunity for the city of St. Paul to bring a business, that happens to be baseball, to the core of downtown," the mayor said.

But he said the project won't move ahead until enough signatures are collected to put the sales-tax initiative on the ballot and unless the Twins agree to work exclusively with St. Paul to build a ballpark. Even then, he said, the plan will work "only -- only -- only -- if the people of St. Paul raise their hands and say yes" on the November ballot.

Petition organizers need to collect 5,000 signatures from St. Paul registered voters to get the sales-tax ordinance on the ballot. Erich Mische, Coleman's ballpark manager, declined to say Wednesday how many signatures have been collected and verified so far. He said the drive results will be announced July 2, when the petitions must be turned over to the city clerk.

St. Paul wants a working agreement with the Twins soon, but it's not essential to have it by the time the petition drive ends, Mische said. Coleman has said he wants to give the Twins time to weigh a Minneapolis stadium proposal before committing to St. Paul.

Council Member Kathy Lantry wanted the mayor to promise not to go forward with the plan unless Major League Baseball implements a revenue-sharing program that would help smaller markets succeed. And Benanav proposed putting arguments on both sides of the issue on the city's Web site.

"If we can move beyond demagoguery and class warfare and clearly lay out the pros and cons, I think that's absolutely appropriate," Coleman said.