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Pohlad: Contribution to Twins ballpark `fair, substantial'
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Artist sketch of the proposed new ballpark from street level. (Photo: Minnesota Twins)
The Minnesota Twins and Hennepin County have agreed to a funding plan for a new baseball stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The plan for the $360 million facility will include private funding from Twins owner Carl Pohlad and public money from the county in the form of a sales-tax increase. Some say it's the best funding proposal out of the others that have come before it. However, there are residents of Hennepin County who don't like the plan. They say it's unfair for the county to raise taxes without their direct input.

St. Paul, Minn. — The team chose to hold the official announcement of the stadium deal outdoors near the Metrodome's light-rail station. Team officials say they wanted to highlight how light rail and the proposed Northstar commuter rail lines will help bring fans to the new park. However the cold, blustery weather prompted Twins owner Carl Pohlad to remark about what the new ballpark plan is lacking.

"It's a little cold. Maybe we can vote for a roof now," he said.

A retractable roof comes extra; about $100 million extra, which according to team officials is up to the state Legislature to pay for if they wish. However, as it stands the plan doesn't require any state funding.

Jerry Bell, the former president of the team, says a retractable roof would be nice, but they're ready to build the stadium without the roof if necessary.

"Now since we don't have a roof at this point, we had to make some accommodations to the ballpark and some changes. You can see that without the roof... we put the sunscreen on the top, we have to be concerned about that. We put some rooftop seating out in right field," he said.

The plan calls for a county-wide sales tax increase of .15 percent -- about 15 cents for every $100.

County commissioner Mark Stenglein says the increase is a small burden on taxpayers.

"Granted it is a tax, but it's reasonable enough to be of public sector. I mean this is a public piece of infrastructure. It's almost like a big piece of furniture for the city. To not have it would be a shame," Stenglein said.

But there are some Hennepin County residents who don't like the idea of any public money going to fund a stadium.

"This welfare for the rich," said Dennis Wagner, who lives in north Minneapolis. He says he's not against paying a little more taxes, as long as it goes to something that more of the public can benefit from. Wagner lives in the Jordan neighborhood, where a large proportion of residents are poor, black, and young. He says he'd like to see a county-wide tax increase to help make his neighborhood a better place to live.

"We've got literally the crappiest park in one of the most stressed neighborhoods in the city and we've got to dip into our NRP funding to get some reasonable playground equipment for the kids," he says.

Wagner says he'd like to see a Hennepin County referendum on the stadium funding deal so citizens like him can vote for or against it. However, county officials, like Commissioner Mike Opat, say a referendum isn't necessary.

"I believe in representative government," Opat says. "I think we get elected to do the job of the people and that includes ballparks, it includes corrections and includes human services and we don't have referendums on our budget every year. So I understand this is extraordinary for counties in Minnesota, but it comes with the job, as do other initiatives, like light rail and things like that and we didn't have referendums on those."

The state Legislature will likely have the final say on the funding of the stadium. Legislators have to approve the county's request to increase its sales tax. Meanwhile the legislature is set to adjourn this year's session on May 23.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other legislative leaders say work on the state budget will come first. Pawlenty said the proposal struck him as "reasonable" but said he would prefer that the sales tax hike be put to a public referendum.

House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen said even though the proposal doesn't seek any state contribution, he remains skeptical about the public's share.

"I'm not convinced if you go out to dinner in Eden Prairie that you should be paying sales tax for a stadium in downtown Minneapolis," said Paulsen, an Eden Prairie Republican.

Retiree John Slattery of Plymouth echoed Paulsen.

"Why should I be saddled with some kind of sales tax for a benefit that goes primarily for Carl Pohlad," Slattery said.

The Twins, who have been after a new stadium for a decade, have been on the brink of getting one before. In 2002, a bill authorizing financing for a ballpark cleared the Legislature, but the Twins said the numbers didn't work for them. The latest plan calls for a $125 million upfront contribution from Pohlad, a billionaire who has owned the team for two decades. Jerry Bell, Pohlad's longtime point man on stadium issues, said there are no restrictions on where that payment comes from - meaning it could come from selling naming rights or other privately raised money. It must be paid by the time the ballpark opens.

Pohlad sidestepped questions about the source of his payment, but said the public was getting a fair deal.

"With the substantial contribution we're making, I don't know how they can say `No,"' Pohlad said of lawmakers.

The total project cost is estimated at $478 million, if roadwork, site preparation and other infrastructure improvements are factored in.

The Twins and Hennepin County would make annual contributions, beginning at $600,000 and $1.4 million respectively, for future maintenance.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)