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Short-term solution for Twins' stadium woes proposed

MINNEAPOLIS -- Someone finally has given the Minnesota Twins a reason to stay for at least a few more seasons. Whether they will accept remains to be seen. The agency that runs the Metrodome offered Wednesday to drop a lawsuit against the Twins and help them make more money for up to four years if they agree to look for a buyer who would keep them in Minnesota.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission's plan wouldn't solve the Twins' stadium problems, but it would buy time as the Legislature struggles with the question of whether to build a new ballpark.

"This is going to be a stop-gap solution," said Bill Lester, the commission's executive director. "Long-term they're not going to be able to reach a point where they're competitive in the Metrodome."

The Twins, claiming $26.4 million in losses in 1995-97 and expecting at least $10 million more this season, have said they will exercise an escape clause in their lease that will allow them to leave after this season. They are threatening to move to Charlotte, N.C., and officials there have given the team until early August to decide whether it will move for the 1999 season.

Baseball's owners, who would have to approve a move, are believed to have told Twins owner Carl Pohlad they might back the sport's first franchise relocation in 27 years.

The commission's proposal reflected what appears to be a growing concern that the Twins might be leaving, said chairman Henry Savelkoul.

"We know if we don't try we're dead in the water," he said. "We still might be dead in the water, but at least we've got to try to swim."

Pohlad told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press he didn't know anything about the proposal and hadn't talked to anyone about it. Team president Jerry Bell told the Star Tribune that team officials had just begun studying the proposal, and that they wouldn't comment until they finished thoroughly reviewing it.

If the Twins do start looking for a local buyer, Glen Taylor, owner of the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves, would be the leading candidate. Taylor, who recently failed in his bid to buy the NFL Minnesota Vikings, did not return a telephone call Wednesday.

The commission is suing the Twins to overturn their claim that they have met the terms of the escape clause, which is tied to attendance and operating losses. The commission contends the Twins' poor attendance and losses over the past three seasons were caused by baseball's 1994-95 strike, as well as decisions the team made.

The matter is scheduled for a hearing Monday and is part of a larger legal battle. State Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III is investigating whether baseball owners conspired to get publicly funded stadiums by controlling franchise movement.

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, and House Minority Leader Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, called the commission's proposal a positive development.

"It would be nice if they could figure out some strategy whereby they could help them financially to continue to play in the dome for at least a little while," said Moe, a supporter of stadium funding.

That might give the debate over whether to build a new stadium "a good cooling off period," he said.

But Sviggum, an opponent of public subsidies for sports teams, said that might not make a difference.

"From my standpoint, whether there's a lease or not a lease, whether the time is now or four years from now, it seems the principle doesn't change and that principle is whether government should subsidize professional sports," Sviggum said.

The commission's proposal is for two years, with an option for two more. Its plan to help the Twins is tied to ticket sales; the more fans the Twins draw, the more money they would earn.

Based on last year's attendance of 1,411,064, the deal would make the Twins about $1 million a year. They are on pace to draw about 1.2 million this season.

The commission also would extend the same revenue possibility to the Vikings and the University of Minnesota, the dome's other two primary tenants. The commission has about $3.5 million extra annually after paying off the dome's $36 million debt earlier this year, and it claimed Wednesday's offer was the best it could do.

"This is it, we have no more money to give," commissioner Loanne Thrane said. "This is not a point from which to start bargaining. This is the deal."