In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Doomed Dome
By William Wilcoxen
October 4, 1999
Part one of a series
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

In less than a month, Saint Paul residents will vote on whether to raise their city sales tax to help fund a new baseball stadium for the Minnesota Twins. The vote comes less than 20 years after groundbreaking ceremonies at the site of the Twins' current home, the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

How did the Metrodome go from new to inadequate in less than two decades? Would a new ballpark have a longer life span? In part one of our series on the stadium referendum, Minnesota Public Radio's William Wilcoxen has this look at the Metrodome and its prospective successor in Saint Paul.

In the 17 years since it opened, the Metrodome has seen successes, hosting two World Series, and baseball's all-star game, as well as the Super Bowl and college basketball's final four. A tax on tickets to Metrodome events helped pay for the building in about half the allotted 30 years.
ON OPENING DAY OF THE 1982 baseball season a few stubborn tail-gaters gathered in Bloomington for a cookout in an otherwise empty Metropolitan Stadium parking lot. Other disgruntled traditionalists headed for downtown Minneapolis bearing placards decrying the advent of corporate baseball. April snowflakes and 55,000 people swirled around them as they explained their contempt for the Teflon-coated fiberglass covering the new home of the Minnesota Twins.
Fan: This is not baseball anymore. Our game's been bought by the rich people. You put it under a dome with plastic grass and artificial conditions, it's not baseball anymore.
But picketers' barbs could not puncture the congratulatory mood inside the air-inflated Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Donald Poss, executive director of the stadium commission, was still basking in his warm reception by fans at two exhibition games the Twins played to open the dome.
Poss: They appear to be very pleased, almost ecstatic at what they see. Last night I could hardly take 10 steps down the concourses for the first two hours without being stopped by people who saw my nametag, expressing their absolute delight with the place.
In the 17 years since it opened, the Metrodome has seen successes, hosting two World Series, and baseball's all-star game, as well as the Super Bowl and college basketball's final four. A tax on tickets to Metrodome events helped pay for the building in about half the allotted 30 years.

But, in a reversal of sorts, many of the executives who pushed for the dome are now pining for a dose of nature with their baseball. Twins President Jerry Bell was assistant director of the sports commission when the Metrodome was built. Now Bell is leading the Twins' campaign for an open-air ballpark near the Mississippi River in Saint Paul.
Bell: There's a romance to baseball if it's played on grass on a sunny day or a nice evening. And you can't experience that in a football stadium, particularly not in a domed football stadium.
In the 1970s, Minnesota Vikings executives declared Met Stadium too small for the football team's needs. Reports that the Vikings were eyeing a move to Los Angeles added urgency to Minneapolis' push for a new stadium. Bell says a proposal to build two stadiums - one for baseball, one for football - was rejected as too expensive. Instead, policymakers in Minneapolis and at the State Capitol authorized a single domed stadium for the Twins and Vikings and capped construction costs at $55 million.

Bell says the Metrodome was the last of several American stadiums designed for Big-league baseball and football.
Bell: About the time the Metrodome was completed, the industries - both football and baseball - were changing to single-purpose facilities with far more economic benefits to provide the competitive edge that teams need nowadays to compete in the industry.
Stadium Wars
Visit MPR Online's extensive collectionof information and resources on the stadium debate.
The sports and architecture industries now call multi-purpose stadiums a failed experiment. The differently shaped fields presented problems for designers struggling to put fans of each sport close to their game. Perhaps more important, having two big-league tenants makes it impossible for each to claim all the revenue from a building's luxury seating, concession sales, parking, and advertising. At several newer, publicly-funded, single-purpose stadiums around the country one team does control those revenues. Such teams have more money to spend on hiring top players, producing the competitive edge Bell mentioned. The spending has also sent player salaries into an upward spiral. Major League Baseball salaries rose 19 percent this year, pushing the average salary over $1.7 million dollars, seven times what it was when the Metrodome was built.

Bill Lester, the current executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, says the Metrodome has been deemed insufficient more because of economic than physical considerations.
Lester: It isn't that the stadium became obsolete; it's the economics of professional sport that've gone "zooey." Once a community, be it Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis, any of these communities that took a significant amount of money and put it in, that changed the playing field. The playing field was no longer level.
New ballparks are popping up across the country. With one exception in San Francisco, the new buildings are paid for primarily with public funds and most of the profits generated in the stadium go to the team. The building binge is keeping architects busy. Bill Johnson, a principal at Ellerbee Beckett and the design director of their sports facilities group, says cities are replacing ballparks before they grow old.
Johnson: There are buildings that we have taken down, for example Fulton County Field in Atlanta, which was the old home of the Braves; the debt service was not even paid off on Fulton County and we actually took that building down. So it's not a unique problem that cities are facing.
Saint Paul Mayor Norm Coleman has brokered a plan calling for the city, the state, and the Twins to split the cost of a new $325 million outdoor ballpark that would seat 38,000 fans near the downtown riverfront. Saint Paul residents will vote November 2 on whether to raise the city sales tax by one-half of one percent to help pay for the stadium. Even if voters approve, the deal needs approval from legislators and Governor Ventura to allocate state money for the ballpark.

Opponents of public funding for a ballpark say cities should not invest tax revenue in big-league baseball, particularly not with player costs accelerating as they are. Saint Paul attorney Tom Montgomery founded the group "Fiscal Accountability for New Stadiums."
Montgomery: What's going to happen 10, 15 years from now? A 38,000 seat stadium that's open air? That's why we built the Dome, because they didn't like an open-air stadium. It's never going to end.
It's hard to predict whether the ballparks going up today will be longer-lived than those built in the '60s and '70s or if they, too, will be outdated by newer, more lucrative trends in stadium design. Steve Medema chairs the economics department at the University of Colorado-Denver, where a new ballpark containing restaurants and retail has become a tourist attraction and sparked the revitalization of a dormant warehouse district.
Medema: I don't know what they could do next. But then, 15 years ago I wouldn't have envisioned luxury suites and all that kind of stuff. So who knows? What's talked about being next is not stadium issues but things like Pay-Per-View and so on, different types of deals through the media that are more lucrative for the team itself.
Bill Johnson of Ellerbee Beckett says architects are designing today's ballparks for just one sport, but are trying to make them flexible enough to accommodate future modifications.
Johnson: We are planning as much flexibility into the new buildings as we can, because we don't know. We don't know what kind of new multi-purpose thing might be the next fad.
Ellerbee Beckett developed renovations plans for the Metrodome that would re-orient the building to serve either baseball or football, but not both. To date, neither the Twins nor Vikings have shown interest in those plans. Each team insists it cannot thrive in the future under the Teflon-coated fiberglass of the Metrodome.