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Minneapolis stadium plan draws tepid response
by Mark Brunswick

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday narrowly approved a tepid resolution in support of exploring plans to build a Minnesota Twins stadium -- but only after a heated three-hour debate on the city's proper priorities.

Hennepin County commissioners, meanwhile, could be debating a similar measure as soon as Tuesday, although enthusiasm among board members for any public funding of a new stadium has dwindled in recent weeks.

The Minneapolis resolution, which affirmed the city's interest in being at the table for possible negotiations, passed 7-6 after impassioned pleas from Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and blistering accusations of political posturing from council stadium supporters and opponents alike.

Despite the intensity of the debate, Minneapolis officials still are awaiting a formal financing plan that might compete with proposals from St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who hopes to put a stadium referendum on the November ballot in his city.

A petition drive calling for St. Paul voters to consider a half-cent sales tax increase will continue this weekend, even though organizers apparently already have far more than the 5,000 signatures needed.

Larry Dowell, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 names have been collected.

Erich Mische, Coleman's ballpark manager, said stadium supporters planned to submit the petitions to city election officials next Friday.

St. Paul officials hope to win a financial commitment from the Twins within the next month to pay one-third of the proposed stadium's estimated $330 million cost. Without such a pledge, Coleman has said, he will drop efforts to win the approval of local voters and legislators to split the remaining cost.

Minneapolis debate

Two weeks ago, the Minneapolis City Council deadlocked on a preliminary stadium resolution.

On Friday, clauses in that resolution calling for the city to donate land for a riverfront site and making a stronger financial commitment were removed.

Friday's debate assumed that any financing would include an additional half-cent sales tax increase throughout Hennepin County. Such a tax would require approval of the Legislature -- which has steadfastly opposed past efforts to spend tax dollars on a new stadium -- and the Hennepin County Board. The proposed tax has been projected to raise about $70 million a year, and has stadium supporters and others salivating over the additional revenue.

Sixth Ward Council Member Jim Niland, an outspoken stadium foe, tried to amend the resolution, earmarking $25 million a year for affordable housing.

"There seems to be no problem making an expressed commitment to [Twins owner] Carl Pohlad. How about an expressed commitment to our own people?" Niland asked.

His amendment sparked the three-hour debate and raised the ire of council stadium supporters who felt his move backed them into an untenable political corner.

"What we are doing is creating trick bags for people to get in and out of," said Council President Jackie Cherryhomes.

Some acknowledged that the debate was being at least partly driven by Coleman's aggressive campaign in St. Paul.

"Norm is deadly serious out there, folks, and we are playing around," said 4th Ward Council Member Barb Johnson, who voted for the resolution.

Others, though, felt Minneapolis remained in a stronger position and shouldn't overreact to outside pressures.

"We don't know how to negotiate," said 11th Ward Council Member Dore Mead, who opposed the resolution. "We ought to be being invited to the dance. Instead, we are throwing the party and picking up the tab for it."

With 8th Ward Council Member Brian Herron absent for the earlier vote, the council deadlocked 6-6 on the resolution that called for cooperating with Hennepin County to raise money for a new downtown stadium and other sports and nonsports projects through the sales tax.

Herron, who was generally considered to be a stadium supporter, voted against the resolution Friday, saying more pressing problems faced the city. But Council Vice President Joe Biernat changed his earlier vote and supported the measure.

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

After the vote, Sayles Belton said the lack of a clear mandate would not impede her ability to move forward in talks.

Hennepin reaction

At the county level, meanwhile, stadium supporters may be facing an uphill battle of their own. Board Chairman Randy Johnson and Vice Chairman Peter McLaughlin have been spearheading stadium efforts. A resolution similar to the Minneapolis measure may be introduced as soon as Tuesday, but an actual financing plan continues to elude county commissioners.

When the idea of using a sales tax increase surfaced, Board Member Mark Stenglein expressed an interest in a stadium proposal, but only if it included tax relief for property owners. Earlier this week, though, Stenglein said he would not support a stadium proposal if it included raising any taxes.

Stenglein could be the deciding vote in the county debate. Three other members of the seven-member board (Penny Steele, Gail Dorfman, and Mike Opat) have previously opposed the plan. Board Member Mary Tambornino says she wants to see a final proposal before deciding.