By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"In '97, to bring up a ballpark was like having leprosy," quips Senator Johnson. "This past initiative, people wanted to have a beer with you."
In the end, only the protracted gridlock between Democrats and Republicans over major spending bills prevented the ballpark issue from coming up for a vote. "I think the Legislature was by and large more receptive than they were in the past," avers Bell. "We were up against a deadline. I don't think the Legislature was going to approve a ballpark bill and not approve a budget."
Although the Twins' plans didn't make their way to the floor this year, the issue is far from dead. The groundwork is already being laid for the 2002 session, when the Twins will almost certainly be back at the capitol with their legion of lobbyists. The team is so comfortable with its future prospects that in late July Bell floated the idea of tacking an $80 million to $120 million retractable roof onto the wish list, ballooning the total bill to $400 million-plus. And last week House Speaker Steve Sviggum announced that by September a legislative study group will be created to examine stadium options for the Twins, Minnesota Vikings, and the University of Minnesota's football team. In retrospect a measly $300 million ballpark that is only roof-ready might have been a bargain.
Given this shift in the legislative wind, it's no wonder the Twins are ignoring the work of the C-17 committee, with their pie-in-the-sky plans to privately finance a smaller, cheaper ballpark. Against the backdrop of a winning season, legislators no longer fear that they will be sacrificing their political lives by voting for a stadium bill. And those activists who led the crusades against the Twins' ballpark plans in '97 and '99 have been worn down by the team's doggedness. "They can basically wear you down," says Julian Empson Loscalzo, a veteran of the failed campaign to save Metropolitan Stadium. "You don't have the resources, you don't have the money, you don't have the time."
The Rapid Park car lot is isolated on the northern fringe of downtown Minneapolis. Commuter cars line the cracked blacktop on weekdays. Elevated roads, designed to efficiently shuttle the masses in and out of the city each day, loom overhead. The rear of the Target Center lies to the southeast; beyond it are the towering skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis. To the northwest sits a massive tan and brown garbage incinerator, belching out smoke as dump trucks deposit their toxic loads.
This ten-acre slab of blacktop is where Minneapolis baseball boosters want to build a new home for the Twins. In place of the parking lot would be an intimate, 40,000-seat, open-air ballpark. A pedestrian mall would allow Twins supporters to make their way to bars and restaurants in the Warehouse District. Seldom-used railroad tracks near the site would shuttle state enthusiasts from St. Cloud directly to the ballpark's doorstep. Looking out from home plate, fans would take in the downtown skyline.
The process that led to the selection of the Rapid Park site began in early 2000. Jim Campbell, chairman of Wells Fargo Bank of Minnesota, joined John Schueler, then-publisher of the Star Tribune, to form the nonprofit group New Ballpark Inc. (Schueler has since left the Twin Cities and is now publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News.) Their mission was to determine whether it was possible to construct a privately financed baseball stadium. Public-relations consultants and lobbyists Mark Oyaas and Chuck Neerland were brought on board to shepherd the group's efforts. Oyaas says that the two of them got involved in the cause because of their love of the game. "This is something we care about," he explains.
Just a week after the media reported that New Ballpark Inc. had been formed, the Twins announced that they would be creating their own citizen panel: Minnesotans for Major League Baseball. The team enlisted 124 people in the effort, including heavy hitters such as former U.S. Representative Tim Penny, restaurateur Leeann Chin, and former Supreme Court Justice A.M. (Sandy) Keith. Despite the presence of so many civic pooh-bahs, the independence of a panel handpicked and bankrolled by the team was questionable. "Every one of them had a connection to the Twins," Oyaas says dismissively. "It was straight out of their rolodex."
The report the Twins-sanctioned organization ultimately produced essentially became an outline for the team's legislative efforts in 2001. In six months' time, the work of Schueler and Campbell's New Ballpark Inc., and the idea of a privately financed ballpark, was quickly eclipsed. "They've had their legs cut out from under them," says fervent stadium foe and Roseville democrat Sen. John Marty, when asked about New Ballpark Inc. "[The Twins] are doing everything in their power to undercut them."
Despite the presence of Minnesotans for Major League Baseball, New Ballpark Inc. members plowed ahead with their work. In June of 2000, they turned to the City of Minneapolis for its blessing and the C-17 committee was picked by the city council and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Some of the committee members were veterans of past efforts to derail the Twins' stadium plans. The Rev. Ricky Rask led the campaign to thwart the team's legislative efforts in 1997. Betsy Hodges works for Progressive Minnesota, the nonprofit group that helped defeat St. Paul's stadium referendum two years later. Tom Goldstein is publisher of the baseball journal Elysian Fields Quarterly, and has been a fervent critic of spending public dollars to build sports stadiums. (Goldstein wrote "Ballpark Frankness," a cover story published in City Pages September 8, 1999, detailing how he believed an intimate neighborhood ballpark could be constructed for less than $200 million.)