The Old Ball Game

Pawlenty helps revive campaigns for new stadiums

 Even the most ardent stadium boosters were not shameless enough to push for ballpark funding in the midst of last year's four-billion-dollar state deficit. But in the wake of that blissful lull, stadium politics are back with a vengeance in recent weeks, with proponents ambitiously expanding their scope to include as many as three new sports facilities. This time, it seems, they are serious.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which for years has proposed building a ballpark for the Twins and upgrading the Metrodome for the Vikings, voted earlier this month to shelve that idea, clearing the way for both the Twins and the Vikings to seek brand-new homes. To that end, Governor Tim Pawlenty named an 18-member steering committee, to be chaired by his finance commissioner Dan McElroy, that would consider proposals for football and baseball stadiums someplace in the metro area. As McElroy readily admitted, the vast majority of the committee members chosen by Pawlenty are in favor of constructing new ballparks.

Meanwhile, U of M President Robert Bruininks has urged those promoting a new football stadium for the Gophers--especially alumnus T. Denny Sanford, who has tentatively pledged $35 million toward the effort--to come up with a financial strategy before the Board of Regents begins receiving stadium feasibility studies next month.

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

The decision by Pawlenty, who consistently opposed stadium-funding bills as a state senator, to even talk stadiums is a significant and complicated development. For instance, since Red McCombs bought the Vikings in 1998, he has grumbled about his team's 30-year lease at the Metrodome, to the point of making empty threats about moving the franchise. Lost in the owner's overtures is that the Vikings are legally bound to the Metrodome until 2011.

According to MSFC executive director Bill Lester, because of specific provisions in the lease, the Vikings couldn't prevail in court even if the team was willing to compensate the commission for any lost revenue by leaving the Dome. And besides that, Lester adds, the commission also has a separate 30-year pact with the NFL, "and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is on record as saying the league honors its commitments."

After meeting with McCombs this fall, however, Pawlenty has chosen to flout these legal restrictions and initiate a process that would get a new Vikings stadium constructed before the lease expires. "Assume you get a stadium package passed in '04," says Vikings executive vice president Mike Kelly. "You have to identify the site, break ground, assure the infrastructure--there's a three-to-five year design-build period involved. That brings you pretty close to 2011."

Never mind that five years from 2004 would still produce a new stadium two years before the Vikings lease with the Dome expires. "If you had to shave a year or so off the lease," Kelly says blithely, "so be it."

 

It's hard not to surmise some political calculation in Pawlenty's push for the Vikings. Stadium rhetoric plays well with the suburban voters that are Pawlenty's political base. Notably, of the various communities vying for a Vikings stadium, Kelly reports that the most concerted efforts thus far have been undertaken by Anoka County (for a site in Blaine) and Eden Prairie.

"What stadium proponents are doing is setting up this debate about where they should be built, which distracts people from thinking about how they can be built; specifically, where the money will come from," claims Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), a longtime opponent of public funding for ballparks. "If you have people talking about 'Oh, St. Paul really snookered Hennepin County on a baseball stadium,' or setting up some competition about where to put the Vikings, you avoid the issue of how to pay for it."

Aside from hoodwinking voters, the move puts legislators up against a wall. Marty believes Pawlenty's willingness to discuss options will lead to the inevitable. "Once we're at the Capitol they'll be saying that this steering committee strongly recommends this, so we should do it," Marty continues. "But you notice that they've stopped polling about stadium issues because they found that when it comes to funding these things, most people don't want to spend the money."

Indeed, with the state already having borrowed approximately two billion dollars to make ends meet even after enacting dramatic budget cuts in the last legislative session, it's not clear how an avowed fiscal conservative like Pawlenty can finesse financing for one stadium, let alone two or three. If the governor is relying on the generosity of the owners or other members of the business community, he may be in for a rude surprise.

As Hennepin County Commisioner Mike Opat puts it, "Anyone who thinks the business community is going to come up with all the money is smoking dope."

One justification for fast-tracking a Vikings stadium is to leverage the NFL's "G3" fund, a pot of money set aside by the league to help with stadium construction. According to Kelly, $680 million of the fund's $800 million total has already been expended, and with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys already looking to tap into the remaining $120 million, Minnesota needs to act quickly before the money is gone.

Under the provisions of G3, the NFL could match any stadium contribution by McCombs (and perhaps, says Kelly, funding by other private business interests) at approximately 50 cents on the dollar. Because McCombs pledged $100 million during the last push for a Vikings stadium three years ago, boosters are figuring that he and the G3 fund together will be good for $150 million this time around.

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