4.24.2005

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Many of you from outside the state might wonder why the Twins still play indoors in an age when so many clubs have built new facilities. Although the story of why is complex, the answer is really fairly simple: Carl Pohlad. The Twins owner had a friendly Governor in during the Arne Carlson administration, but he turned public opinion against him by pretending to consider moving the team to North Carolina. The public thereafter has remained quite skeptical of helping out an owner who is perhaps the most unpopular man in the state.

However, it may not matter.

This is from the Star-Tribune:

Twins, Hennepin have stadium deal


With a new promise of $125 million from Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad in hand, Hennepin County will seek state permission to increase the local sales tax for a Warehouse District ballpark in downtown Minneapolis.

Under the terms of the plan to be unveiled at a Metrodome press conference Monday, the Twins and the county would build a $360 million, 42,000-seat open-air stadium. The site is near the confluence of Interstate Hwy. 394, the end of the Hiawatha Light Rail line and the proposed Northstar commuter rail in downtown Minneapolis.

The total cost of the ballpark project is projected to be $478 million, including bonding costs, site preparation and surrounding infrastructure, such as road and pedestrian improvements. No state money would be required.

The team, which has been seeking a new ballpark for a decade, would reap revenues from concessions, naming rights and luxury suites.

"It's simple. It's straightforward. You know exactly what you're voting on," said Jerry Bell, Pohlad's longtime point man on stadium matters.

One group that probably won't be voting on the tax -- which would amount to three cents on every $20 in purchases -- is Hennepin County residents: County and team officials said that requiring a public referendum would kill the deal.

St. Paul voters killed a proposed ballpark plan in 1999, and polls have shown scant support for public funding of stadiums.

The proposed ballpark wouldn't include a roof, but the Twins still favor one.

The team will encourage the state to help cover that cost, projected to be at least $100 million.

Top legislative leaders said on Saturday they will consider the proposal after this session's major budget bills are complete, but the plan already has detractors. Gov. Tim Pawlenty declined to comment.

The Hennepin County Board is expected to endorse the plan Tuesday.

"It's important to have a vital downtown," Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said of the ballpark plan. "The team is a state asset, and we can't forget that."

The proposed 0.15 percent increase in the general sales tax is projected to raise $28 million a year and underwrite $353 million in county debt. County officials involved in drafting the proposal plan to issue 30-year bonds, but they predict the tax would raise enough money to pay off the bonds more quickly.

In Denver, 20-year bonds issued to build Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies were covered by a 0.10 percent sales tax and were paid off in less than 10 years.

The use of the sales tax -- as opposed to user fees -- allows the county to issue tax-exempt bonds, which carry lower interest rates than taxable bonds. The sales tax also is a stable and predictable funding source that would grow along with the local economy.

Opat said the goal was to "keep the public's involvement as reasonable as possible, and I think this deal does that."

Pohlad, known as a steely negotiator, sent a letter to the county on Friday saying he would pay $40 million up front with an additional $85 million to follow before the ballpark would open in 2009.

If the Legislature approves, the deal would go back to the County Board, which would then vote on whether to increase the tax.

Capitol reaction

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, both said on Saturday that they would support the proposal.

"This is a very workable plan because it does not require any state general fund money," Johnson said. "Three cents on $20 falls out of most people's pockets before breakfast."
Sviggum called it a "reasonable" plan. "Obviously, it's a significant commitment of the Twins owner," he said.

But both also warned that they would not consider a stadium proposal until after the budget bills for health care, education and transportation were done. That's an important caveat because in recent years the Legislature has had major trouble putting together a budget.

I'm inclined to agree with Majority Leader Johnson. A three cent sales tax on every twenty dollars of goods sold is a small price to pay for the revenue which a new stadium would bring to the county. Minneapolis is one of America's best mid-sized cities in terms of the arts, entertainment, and has managed to stay economically vibrant. It has been hampered by the lack of a decent pro sports facility. I hope that I can see the day when Tori Hunter makes an astonishing play at the wall, on grass. I hope I can see Morneau put one in the seats, seats which aren't folded up from a football game. However, a few more political battles need to be fought. Although I don't want to speak for Righty Grove, I imagine he'll have something to say about the politics of it from his birds eye view in St Paul.

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