The Old Ball Game

Pawlenty helps revive campaigns for new stadiums

Not so fast, Kelly avers: "There hasn't been a specific financial contribution [by McCombs] discussed. You are not going to contribute as much to a stadium that has 40,000 seats and no suites as you are to a stadium that has 70,000 and many suites. Sponsorships, inventory, signage, club seats, parking--all those things determine what a building is capable of generating." In other words, McCombs won't make a baseline commitment before engaging in hardball negotiations that assure he gets that revenue back. And remember, the less McCombs contributes, the less money is available through a G3 match.

So where will the $400 to $600 million required to build a Vikings stadium come from? Kelly claims that a "significant share" of the funding can be garnered without dunning the public--provided that a very broad definition of user fees is invoked. Under the Vikings' scheme, taxes on everything from the franchise to concessions to sports merchandise and memorabilia would be dedicated to paying off the new stadium. This would deprive the government of tax revenue they now receive for those things under the team's current lease. Put simply, it depletes the money going into the public coffers rather than taking it out once it gets there, but the net effect is the same: less money for the government to spend on other priorities.

As Marty says, "If you're not getting those tax dollars, something has to be cut or somebody else has to pick up the tab."

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

Which is fine with Kelly. "We have 70 percent of the market watching the Vikings on television, far more than any other sport. It is obviously a shared social experience, which [justifies] these user or user-related fees," Kelly contends, before acknowledging that "if you don't have that broad a definition, then yes, there is going to have to be some amount of general public participation in funding."

 

If legislators get tired of configuring funding for a half-billion-dollar football stadium for the Vikings, there's also the matter of a new ballpark for the Twins.

Baseball stadium proponents argue that Major League Baseball owners will start talking contraction again in 2006, so the Twins are a more urgent priority than the Vikings. But recent experiences in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Detroit prove that building a new stadium no longer ensures fiscal stability for a pro baseball franchise, even for the short term.

Of course, the Twins are facing other obstacles. Two years ago, legislators approved funding a Twins ballpark to the tune of $200 million from the City of St. Paul, only to have the team turn it down while eyeing a site in Minneapolis. Since then, elections in St. Paul have produced a City Council less likely to approve local funding for a stadium. Meanwhile, the Hennepin County commissioners who were the driving force behind a potential ballpark in Minneapolis have seen Pawlenty and state legislators cut their local government aid monies while shifting tens of millions of dollars' worth of governmental service to the county level.

"The good news is that Governor Pawlenty is willing to entertain the notion of a new venue, which is something we never got with Jesse," says Opat, chairman of the Hennepin County Commission and the point person for the county's stadium proposal two years ago. "I had a brief conversation with the governor and it seems that he is willing to come up with some money."

Of course, if it were that easy, Pawlenty would identify where to get the revenue, or at least how much the state could commit. Instead, it appears that the governor is hiding behind McElroy's screening committee to further his stadium agenda. Opat says Pawlenty was "vague" about where he would come up with the money.

At least Opat understands that any state funding would likely be supplemental to the burden borne by local taxpayers. "The bad news is, as easy as it is to talk about the need for a new ballpark, local governments are usually the primary source of funding and it is a terrible time for us to do anything, given the budget cuts we are incurring right now," Opat says. "Everybody seems to be ducking the funding talk. A ballpark is going to cost money. We don't have money."

Nevertheless, there are indications that Opat might be willing to bear the political risks of pushing for a stadium during the next legislative session. For instance, Opat is one of the few stadium proponents willing to talk straight about the inevitability of higher taxes in order to build a ballpark. "However it is configured, somebody has to come up with revenue they don't have. So there is going to have to be some sort of tax, either smaller and broadly applied or higher and more narrowly applied, and that's where it gets ticklish," he says, explaining the political bind. "If we feel we must wait for good time, when all our needs are met, to build a stadium, then there will never be a good time."

Then again, it's not certain that Opat will be in a position to lead a fight for a new ballpark. There have been published rumors that Republican commissioners on the county board want to replace him as chair in January. If that happens, Opat may prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting at the Capitol. If he is replaced as chair, prospects will be further diminished for a baseball stadium in Minneapolis.

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