Puck Off

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman hopes to land a new hockey arena before this year's elections.

AS SPORTS-FACILITY projects go, the St. Paul hockey-arena proposal that died ignominiously in the closing days of the Legislature was at one point in the process a pretty reasonable deal. Faced with the reality that a $58 million renovation of the 24-year-old St. Paul Civic Center was not a workable long-term solution, proponents of the arena adroitly devised plans for a brand-new $130-million facility located across the street from the center. The St. Paul City Council agreed to allocate $30 million. The hockey franchise's private ownership group was going to pony up another $35 million--and, more significantly, be responsible for any cost overruns during construction of the building. St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and other arena backers were asking the Legislature to make up the difference by granting them $6.5 million this year and pledging to add $58.5 million more in next year's bonding bill.

But during a joint House and Senate rules committee hearing last Friday afternoon, legislators slowly but surely brought back all the old obstacles to a deal. One senator wanted to know why a hockey team couldn't play in Minneapolis's Target Center. Another wondered why the Legislature would throw money at a sports team that hadn't even arrived yet when the Twins were a proven asset in need of financial support. But the most politically damaging remarks clearly came from powerful Senate Tax Committee chair Doug Johnson (DFL-Tower), who said it was "stupid" to ask for funding out of the state's general revenues. Not coincidentally, Johnson had floated a proposal earlier in the session that would have put slot machines in Canterbury Downs as a means of financing a baseball stadium and a hockey arena.

To appease Johnson, Coleman and company spent the next 24 hours frantically revamping their proposal, changing what would have been a $65 million grant from the state to a no-interest loan. The loan would be paid back by revenues from the half-cent sales-tax increase the city has been levying since 1994. But by law, the city can only use 40 percent of that money for facilities, and almost all of that is already being used to pay off improvements in the St. Paul Convention Center. Getting a larger share of those sales-tax revenues would mean cutting into the city's primary source of neighborhood economic development.

The same 40 percent, along with a ticket surcharge and signage fees on the outside of a new arena, would also be tapped to pay for the city's $30 million contribution to the hockey facility. Which means that 40 percent of a half-cent sales tax would be used to pay off approximately $95 million worth of debt--and another big building project.

Such were the terms of a bill the proponents resubmitted the day after Johnson's rebuke, and just two days before the end of the session, when it was subjected to a fatal grilling from St. Paul's own state Sen. Sandy Pappas in the Tax Committee. The lazier pundits are blaming Pappas alone for St. Paul's failure to secure hockey funding: She, the argument goes, just would not grant Mayor Norm Coleman a glitzy new facility less than six months before she expects to face him at the polls. No doubt Pappas's motives were far from pure. But to finger her as the arena assassin conveniently ignores a half dozen or so other factors that either muddied or poisoned the waters as the bill moved through the legislative process. They include Coleman's switch to the GOP just weeks before he took his pet project to a DFL-dominated Legislature; the prevailing political climate for pro-sports investments in these parts; and the fact that the most persistent proposal for funding the hockey arena and baseball stadium involves cutting into the profits of the reservation casino industry, which fields some of the more powerful lobbyists at the Capitol.

In an attempt to maneuver through this daunting obstacle course, arena proponents continually altered the nature, scope, and funding sources of their project. On Monday, the last day of the session, they tried to attach a bill that would extend the life of the sales-tax increase, making it a more viable funding option. But after hard questioning from Pappas ("She wants to know how much money it will generate in three years, and in five years. Who knows how much it will be?" said exasperated St. Paul city lobbyist Joe O'Neal), the proposal didn't make it into the bonding bill. Undaunted, O'Neal tried to get it included on the revisor bills, typically the session's last order of business, reserved for clearing up previous legislative errors and general housekeeping issues. But that, too, was unsuccessful.

During his post-session press conference in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Gov. Carlson was asked if the baseball stadium or hockey arena would be "off the table" during the special sessions dealing with education and flood relief this summer. "Nothing is off the table," he replied, adding, "I imagine that issue will come up."

 
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