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Stadium plan begins to unravel
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
April 5, 2002


The Minnesota Twins have told lawmakers that they - or potential new owners - won't be able to make the upfront contributions expected under a stadium plan being considered at the state Capitol. Team officials say they support the framework of the financing plan, but would like more flexibility in the details. But lawmakers say they need specifics before they can sign off on any deals. And the Minnesota Vikings and the University of Minnesota floated a financing plan of their own.

Last month, Gov. Jesse Ventura introduced a ballpark financing plan that contemplates a $165 million upfront contribution from the team and other private sources. That plan has emerged as the framework for discussion between House and Senate lawmakers trying to reach consensus on new stadium legislation, but Twins President Jerry Bell now says meeting that requirement without local government help would make it impossible to complete a sale of the team.

"We have said that the only way that that could be accomplished is with a partner. I don't believe that a new buyer would do that. I don't believe that would ever happen without a partner - namely being a host community," Bell said.

The team is on the auction block in an attempt to generate goodwill among legislators and the public, many of whom regard current owner Carl Pohlad with suspicion.

Bell says the team supports the general financing model, which relies on local taxes, private contributions, and interest earnings on a gift fund to pay of low-interest construction bonds. But he says the Twins want more flexibility on the specifics of who pays what and when.

The team's ambiguity, though, is causing some concern for lawmakers. Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, is the lead Senate negotiator on ballpark issues. He says so far stadium efforts only manage a grade of C+.

"The linchpin of the whole idea is what the Minnesota Twins and the ownership are willing to contribute and put on the table in cash and then how they're going to finance the rest of it. We will virtually not be able to move any further in the conference committee until we have an exact number," Johnson said.

The team has agreed to present alternative financing plans next week, but Bell says those proposals are unlikely to include the $165 million upfront contribution. Although he does say the team will work on other issues, such as guaranteeing the team will remain in Minnesota.

Bell says he'll ask Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for a letter revoking the threat of team elimination if a ballpark is built. But he says its difficult for current ownership to agree to financing specifics that a future owner or owners will have to live by.

Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock says she understands that concern. Nevertheless, she says, speaking on behalf of the Ventura administration, it's not the government's responsibility to help the Twins sell the team at a favorable price.

"It is not the state's job to protect a private owner or a potential new owner from the risks that are associated with that industry," Wheelock said.

Wheelock says the governor is pleased his administration's plan has become the foundation for discussions, but she indicated the plan is still a work in progress.

The team's ongoing talk of flexibility has raising eyebrows. Rep. Dan McElroy, R-Burnsville, says if the state removes all the specific financing requirements and lets the team and a local community negotiate terms, it would give the Twins the power to make cities bid against each other for the right to play host.

"My concern is that we not put the team in the position of being able to take applicant A and applicant B - one in one hand and one in the other - and beat them together until all their money falls out without any independent supervision," McElroy said.

And already, cities are lining up - and in some cases echoing the team's call for less specific requirements. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly told lawmakers the location of the ballpark should be decided between the team and local governments, not - as the bill envisions - by an independent site selection committee.

"I think that the only way that you're going to have this work is to allow the team and the city work out and make those kinds of judgements," he said.

In a previous letter to lawmakers, Kelly also asked that the final cost of the stadium construction not be specified and that the upfront private contribution be left for negotiation. A lower upfront contribution would require higher annual payments over the next 30 years, potentially shouldered by local taxes.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials also testified, pitching the case for keeping the team west of the Mississippi. The ballpark plan passed by the House prevents counties from bidding for the stadium, a provision that would shatter a joint Hennepin County-Minneapolis plan.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak asked legislators to reconsider that point. "Having this body that limits that is essentially saying that we want to have fewer options for solving this tough issue. This is not something that we have idly gotten into," Rybak said.

Rybak says without the county as partner, the city could not pursue the stadium alone. But many lawmakers, particularly from the House, questioned why county input was necessary.

Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, the chief House negotiator, points out that ballpark plans in any city would require voter approval to pass local taxes. He notes that provision effectively neutralizes Minneapolis's referendum-imposed limit on ballpark spending. Mares suggests the real problem in Minneapolis is a lack of political will. He asked Rybak why the Minneapolis City Council has balked at passing a resolution in support of a ballpark.

"That's one of the concern's of the House. We may as well lay it right out on the table. Competing against the city of St. Paul, the city of Brooklyn Park, which is passing a resolution, and the city of Minneapolis not able to do that, possibly," Mares said.

The St. Paul and Brooklyn Park city councils have both passed such resolutions and passed them unanimously.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission asking that $15 million of their reserves not be dedicated to a new Twins stadium as the team and lawmakers have contemplated. They say doing so would undermine their ability to maintain and operate the Metrodome which, despite a new ballpark for the Twins, would continue to host the Minnesota Vikings and the University of Minnesota Gophers.

Or maybe not.

The Vikings were at the table as well, pitching a financing plan of their own, modelled loosely on the governor's strategy for the Twins. Vikings Vice President Mike Kelly says if legislators don't act soon, the team may miss a chance at a more than $50 million loan from the National Football League. He says absent that money, a football solution may disintegrate.

"And the partnership that we've worked hard to develop with the University of Minnesota may be gone. And the opportunity to come to a mutually acceptable football stadium solution may disappear," Kelly said.

University officials also appeared to endorse the outline of the Vikings proposal. While some lawmakers say it makes sense to solve the state's sports facilities needs all at once, others are more skeptical, making it unlikely a Vikings plan would be added to the Twins bill. Lawmakers say it was difficult enough passing the Twins bill in the House; they say it would be all but impossible to return with a compromise for two stadiums.

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