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St. Paul, Twins reach financing deal on new ballpark
by Kevin Duchschere and Jay Weiner

On a balmy summer evening he called "a great night for outdoor baseball," Mayor Norm Coleman announced late Monday that St. Paul and the Twins have reached a financial and ownership agreement designed to move the team to Minnesota's capital city.

A key element is that Twins owner Carl Pohlad, once a Twins savior and now considered a roadblock to public support for a ballpark, has agreed to sell 100 percent of the team to new buyers.

Owners of the NHL expansion team Minnesota Wild are expected to seriously consider a bid for the team, which could cost at least $120 million to buy.

"I am thrilled to announce that we have reached a historic agreement with the Minnesota Twins," Coleman said. "We've got a whole new ballgame in St. Paul."

Coleman said the agreement essentially requires the team, city and state to each contribute one-third of the cost of the new ballpark. But he added that the Twins have agreed to guarantee the state's portion as well as their own, in the form of taxes collected on players' salaries and a set of other taxes connected to the stadium.

The agreement, he said, also allows the city and state to take back one-third of the appreciated value of the team, minus operating expenses, should it be sold in the future.

The ballpark, to be owned by the city, would be completed by the spring of 2003. The team would sign a 30-year lease with the city to operate, manage and use the ballpark.

For the deal to work, however, three things still need to happen: new owners must buy the entire interest of Carl Pohlad and his family by Oct. 1; St. Paul voters must approve an additional half-cent sales tax to provide the city's portion of the costs at the November referendum; and the Legislature must agree to provide state bonding for the upfront costs and also cover a third of the construction.

The agreement commits the city and the team to each contribute $8.5 million per year toward construction of a $325 million open-air ballpark for the 30 years of the lease.

Coleman said that Major League Baseball has given the go-ahead for the sale and also approved the Twins' move to St. Paul.

Twins president Jerry Bell said that Pohlad agreed to sell the team Monday afternoon.

"The mayor and the Pohlads agreed if this is what helps make this get done, we'll do it," Bell said. "It was an emotional thing for Carl."

Going into the last days of talks between the team and the city, it was expected that as little as 49 percent of the team would be required to be sold.

Coleman said that no ownership group has yet been formed, but that he was optimistic that such a group will be in place by the October deadline. He said that he will play a direct role in putting that group together.

"There are a number of folks that are interested, very interested," he said. "Part of my job is to bring Major League Baseball to St. Paul, and if that means sitting down with people, I'm going to make that work."

The state would probably bear the costs upfront of the stadium with bonding and eventually need to contribute about one-third the cost of the total project, Coleman said. The state's share would be guaranteed by the team with a variety of taxes on players' salaries and the ballpark; if the taxes don't equal the state's share, the Twins would guarantee the difference.

"We believe this is an opportunity that the state can't say no [to]," Coleman said. But he acknowledged that "if the state isn't involved, this doesn't happen.".

Bell said he believed the deal struck about 10 p.m. Monday is "the best out there" among a host of publicly subsidized ballparks. He said the new deal has "more meat on the bones" than a failed deal struck with Gov. Arne Carlson's administration in 1997. "And it's less complicated," Bell said.

St. Paul voters will be asked Nov. 2 whether they approve of an additional half-cent sales tax to fund the city's portion of the ballpark. The campaign to pass that measure is expected to begin in earnest once a site is selected for the ballpark.

Polling continues to show a large majority of the public opposed to public funding, but Council Member Chris Coleman said that he believed this deal would persuade the electorate to pass the proposed sales tax.

"This is a deal that makes sense for the voters and the people of St. Paul," he said. "When they review the deal, we're going to have voters change their minds."

Even if St. Paul voters approve the referendum, however, public funding for the ballpark faces stiff opposition from the Legislature -- which has repeatedly defeated efforts in the past to provide funding -- and Gov. Jesse Ventura, who took a strong stand against public funding in his successful campaign last year.

Coleman said the Twins have agreed to pay any cost overruns toward construction of a ballpark -- a situation now plaguing the new Safeco stadium in Seattle. The Twins also would pay team operating costs and cover maintenance of the facility.

The agreement was reached Monday night after intensive negotiating sessions throughout the day. Leading the St. Paul effort was attorney Tom Fabel, along with Deputy Mayor Susan Kimberly and City Council Member Chris Coleman. They talked face-to-face for at least 5 hours with Bell and a representative of Major League Baseball.

Among ownership possibilities most widely mentioned are leading members of the Wild's partnership -- who include former billboard and rollerblading magnate Robert Naegele -- who lives in Naples, Fla., and Minneapolis lawyer and publisher Vance Opperman. Wild President Jac Sperling said last month he would wait until the Twins-Coleman deal was announced to begin discussing a dual-ownership arrangement with Wild partners.

Coleman said discussions with the Wild group would soon begin; the mayor said he wasn't sure if the Wild ownership group can afford the Twins, whose value in a new ballpark could be worth at least $175 million.

Minneapolis lawyer Clark Griffith, son of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, has long sought to buy the team and continues to bring investors into an ownership group. But the Pohlads have consistently shunned Griffith.

Richard Burke of Medina, who once tried to bring the Winnipeg Jets to the Twin Cities and now owns the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, also has been mentioned in published reports as an ownership candidate. But Burke told the Star Tribune Monday he's not interested.

"I already own a team and sometimes I can't afford that one, much less another," Burke said. "Baseball is a level of financial resources and assets that's beyond mine. So other than not having talked about it, not having an interest, and not being able to afford it, it sounds like a great idea."