Twin Killing

Carl Pohlad's sudden announcement of "serious talks" with a potential buyer is the logical next gambit in the stadium game. But as Minnesota Business Partnership head Duane Benson notes, "It is a little late. He may have wanted to play that card before, g

IF YOU'RE ALREADY weary of public debate over whether the Minnesota Twins should get a new stadium, it might be time to book a month-long trip to New England to check out the fall colors. After a brief period of relative peace and quiet, stadium-related shenanigans should reach a crescendo during the weeks leading up to October 20, the time set by Gov. Arne Carlson for a special legislative session to debate the issue.

Rep. Loren Jennings (DFL-Harris), co-chair of the 16-member legislative task force charged with coming up with a stadium-funding proposal to put before the full House and Senate, promises the public "will see something come out of our group no later than the end of next week." Jennings, who met with Twins owner Carl Pohlad and his family for 90 minutes earlier this month, also says, "This is just an opinion, but I believe two or three weeks from now the Pohlads will bring forward a hard copy of something saying, 'We are out of here.'"

In other words, the process is at the point where stadium supporters such as Jennings put forward their most feasibly generous ballpark proposal as Pohlad deploys his best lobbying gambit. It's a shrewd, classic strategy that has pried hundreds of millions of dollars from public coffers for stadiums in other communities. In 1997 Minnesota, however, a crucial element is missing: a way for politicians to circumvent overwhelming public opposition to a taxpayer-financed deal.

Start with Pohlad's threat to take the Twins to another city. As Minneapolis businessman and potential Twins buyer Clark Griffith points out, Pohlad's self-professed "serious talks" with Charlotte executive Don Beaver serve the interests of both men: Just as Pohlad needs to convince Minnesotans he's able to make good on his threat, Beaver can exploit his talks with Pohlad to drum up support for a pending referendum in and around Charlotte to finance a $150 million stadium. Griffith--who is obviously biased by his own bid--also claims that major league baseball owners wouldn't approve the first relocation of a franchise in more than a quarter century at a time when they want Congress to solidify the sport's anti-trust exemption.

Those who know Pohlad say that the 82-year-old is "pissed off" by the public's rejection of his first bid for a stadium last spring and is unwilling to make another concrete proposal until the Legislature has acted. But no matter what he comes up with, a significant portion of the citizenry will likely continue to frame the issue as a billionaire asking for a public handout. As Minnesota Business Partnership head Duane Benson notes, "It is a little late. He may have wanted to play that card before, gone more immediately to the 'adios.'"

Stadium supporters have a more effective advocate in Jennings, who has already whittled media estimates of the ballpark's cost from $500 million to $350 million by saying, "When we buy a house, we don't include the mortgage interest and the light bill and all the side costs in our purchase price, so why should we do it here?" He also seems willing to pare another $50 to $100 million by forgoing the retractable roof and other amenities. And he stresses that any task-force proposal will be funded "strictly with what I call nontaxpayers' money. The taxpayers have said they support a stadium if it doesn't cost them anything and that's what we're trying to put together."

To Jennings and his co-chair, Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon), that means paying for a ballpark with a combination of state lottery money and the introduction of slot machines at Canterbury Park in Shakopee. But calling the lottery funds "nontaxpayers' money" is disingenuous at best. That revenue normally goes into the state's general fund (aside from 40 percent earmarked for environmental projects), and siphoning off some of it to pay for a stadium would almost certainly affect tax rates and revenues. As for Canterbury Park, no one seems to have considered that an intrusion on the Native American gambling monopoly is likely to be met with cutthroat competition: "They will be raffling off a house every week out at Mystic Lake," says one source close to the Mdewakanton Dakota, who own that casino.

Ultimately, all the pros and cons are moot in the face of political reality. Even Jennings concedes that right now, the best-case scenario is that a stadium proposal will squeak by in the Senate and get trounced in the House. "That's because we in the House have to stand for election next year and the Senate doesn't." It also seems certain that Gov. Arne Carlson will call the special session anyway, if only to show that it wasn't his fault the state lost a baseball franchise. Jennings says most legislators are similarly scrambling for cover: "There are always two buttons in front of legislators, a red one to vote no and a green one to vote yes. As much as my colleagues wish otherwise, there is no yellow button." The stadium controversy, then, is likely to end the way it began--with lots and lots of talk and no action.

 
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