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Critics of stadium drive becoming scarce
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
January 3, 2002

A tripartisan stadium task force opened its proceedings to public comment and found supporters of state assistance for a new Twins ballpark outnumbering opponents. Unlike previous stadium discussions in previous years, critics of taxpayer involvement were scarce during nearly six hours of testimony.

Jesse Williams of Stillwater, left, and Jeff Reese of New Richmond both spoke in favor of building a new stadium at a task force hearing at the Capitol.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

In 1997, the Capitol switchboard was overloaded by upset citizens, condemning plans for a publicly-supported Twins stadium. In 1999, St. Paul voters convincingly defeated a plan to raise the city sales tax to fund a ballpark. But in 2002, the landscape may have shifted.

Major League Baseball is moving to shut down two teams, including the Twins. And lawmakers say that's adding pressure to resolve the ballpark debate before the league resolves it for them.

"We're caught between no public funding - whatever that means - vs. 'we want you to retain the teams.' If you don't retain the teams, we're going to hold you accountable as an elected official. If you use public financing or funding to retain the teams, we're going to hold you accountable. You know, it's kind of like when people say they're for more money for education but they want their taxes cut," said Republican Rep. Kevin Goodno, who co-chairs the stadium task force.

The steady stream of testifiers, however, had a clear preference for saving the team. And Twins General Manager Terry Ryan told the panel that means public assistance for a ballpark.

"Milwaukee's got a chance because of a stadium. Pittsburgh's got a chance because of a stadium. We just want a chance. We've always been responsible and accountable. All we look for is an opportunity to give us a chance to play with Cleveland and Chicago. And then we will take our chances," Ryan said.

Ryan says he is optimistic about the team's prospects this year, provided the Twins survive long enough to take the field.

The panel also heard from ardent fans and community groups that benefit from the team's charity work. Tim Walmon spoke for another constituency - the vendors and other employees who depend on ballgames to earn a living.

"If it were 300 farmers losing their family farms, we wouldn't be talking about financing to help it, we'd be talking about funding. We'd be talking about more than just, 'Well, gee, maybe we ought to think about it.' It'd be something on the front of the paper and it'd be on the news every night," he said.

The task force has been exploring the use of so-called "user fees" and other stadium-related revenues to finance construction. Supporters of this approach say that, although the state will issue the necessary bonds, the debt will be retired without tapping general fund revenues.

But critics say even that level of involvement puts the taxpayers at some risk.

David Strom, executive director of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, was one of a handful of opponents of state assistance to testify, and he argued the economic downturn makes the ballpark debate all the more frivolous.

"You're talking about the expenditure of public funds in some way, shape, or form in the context of a $2 billion budget deficit projected over the next year and a half. There seems to be such a disconnect between what's considered important here and what seems to be considered important by the people of the state of Minnesota," Strom said.

The task force also heard testimony on plans to build an exact replica of the Brooklyn Dodgers legendary Ebbets Field. That plan would pair the ballpark with a mixture of housing and retail space to create a stadium village. The task force will meet again next week to discuss the shape of its final report.

The panel is expected to report to the full Legislature later this month with whatever recommendations - if any -it approves for financing stadiums for the Twins, the Minnesota Vikings, and the University of Minnesota.