Let the Stadium Wars Begin

A look at the coming battle over public financing for a baseball-only park, and an immodest proposal.

Years from now, 1996 may be remembered by Twins fans as the calm between storms. The labor tussles that shortened the past two seasons appear at last to be over, but by the time the final pitch is thrown in '96, we'll be deep into stadium tussles. By then Twins owner Carl Pohlad will have announced how much he's willing to contribute to the new outdoor stadium the team has decided it must have.

That number will re-ignite a debate that was put on hold when this year's Legislature decided not to mount a ballot referendum on public investment in a new Twins playpen. Nevertheless, team officials, including president Jerry Bell and Pohlad's son Jim, have been quietly making the rounds of media outlets the past few months, answering questions and laying the foundation for a campaign that will likely kick off later this year and continue into the '97 legislative session. The Twins, perhaps wary of the fiasco that befell flinty Timberwolves owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner during the Target Center bailout, have instead chosen constructive engagement.

At times, the Twins' version of perestroika is breathtaking to behold. Bell, for instance, says the team will not argue that a $200 million public subsidy will actually pay for itself. "We feel we could make that argument, but we won't," he says. "We are simply saying this is a good thing for the community, an amenity that will make it a better place to live."

But beneath the friendly-sounding candor lies a threat. The Twins in all likelihood will be able to exercise an escape clause in the Metrodome lease; the question of their moving elsewhere after the 1998 season may well turn into a game of chicken the likes of which we haven't seen in Minnesota since the Northwest bailout in 1992.

Sports franchises around the country have laid increasing claim to the public purse in recent years, often over loud public objection. In the stadium wars, "by any means necessary" seems to be the operative rule. In 1994, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican who built high approval ratings by posturing about crime and cutting welfare, spent some of his political capital ramming through a subsidy for a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium. First, Thompson tried to sell voters on a special lottery to fund the ballpark; they refused by a margin of nearly two to one. Thompson then cobbled together a plan whereby the state legislature imposed a special sales tax on the five counties surrounding Milwaukee. Piecing together a coalition of Republican loyalists and Democratic unions coveting construction jobs, Thompson's troops won a battle one veteran lobbyist called "one of the fanciest pieces of parliamentary maneuvering I've ever seen."

The Wisconsin Senate was the final hurdle. On the final evening of a special session, the Senate twice defeated a $160 million subsidy for a new $250 million retractable-roof stadium. But shortly after 2 a.m., the GOP Senate leader, who had voted against the plan, emerged from a meeting with the governor, moved to reconsider, and, at 5 a.m., the $160 million subsidy scheme passed with the same one-vote margin by which it had lost twice. The senator now faces a recall election, but the Brewers have their money.

Michigan Gov. John Engler was more brazen. He didn't even ask his legislature when he committed $55 million to replace beloved Tiger Stadium. Michigan has a gambling compact with Native tribes in the state that includes a casino tax; the Legislature earmarked the money to state-wide economic development. Through his executive authority, Engler decreed that the money go to the Tigers, and the Legislature never got a chance to vote on the matter.

In Minnesota, Arne Carlson has blown hot and not-so-hot on a new Twins stadium. But there are indications that the governor is keeping his powder dry for 1997, when legislators will be past the election and the stadium issue will be fully engaged. This winter, a group of elected officials dropped by the governor's office to lobby for a half-cent sales tax hike for mass transit (which would take the place of the current property tax levy). "We were told by a very senior member of the governor's staff that he didn't want to use the sales tax, he was saving it for next year," says one official, who is a Carlson supporter. "It was clear he meant for the Twins' stadium."

How sweet are these deals from the team owner's standpoint? In most cases, pretty sweet--though the terms of the deals are massaged a little before they reach the public. In Michigan, the turning point in the stadium debate was an effective public relations campaign climaxed by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's offer to pay $145 million of the $240 million open-air stadium himself--a larger share than was pledged by other recent beneficiaries of subsidized stadium deals, such as the Seattle Mariners (just $45 million of $320 million) or the Arizona Diamondbacks ($69 million of $327 million). "But he made no guarantees and may put in no cash," says Kim Stroud, a board member of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club group that fought the new park. "He's merely using some of the revenue generated by a stadium the public is paying 100 percent for up front."

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