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.

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.

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."

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.

 

Last, but certainly not least, is the potential construction of a new on-campus football stadium for the Gophers. It's not surprising that McElroy, Pawlenty's choice to lead the screening committee, continues to promote the idea of a shared stadium for the Vikings and Gophers--or that University President Bruininks is resistant.

"If the U, as a public institution, asks for money for a stadium, are legislators really going to give it to McCombs instead?" Marty asks. With a smaller price tag for its facility than what the Vikings would require and with the prospect of at least indirect public ownership of a Gophers stadium as further political leavening, the University may indeed have the best shot at getting a stadium bill passed at the Capitol next session.

The U has expressed a willingness to try to fund their stadium primarily with private donations. T. Denny Sanford, the South Dakota banker who greased the wheels on a new U stadium push earlier this year, has since downplayed his original proposal. Sanford would fork over the $35 million, he said, only after the complex was completed. And it's not clear whether Sanford actually has the money to make good on his pledge.

The University's hopes may stop at the governor's office anyway. Given his past antipathy toward adequately funding things like education and health care, it is difficult to imagine Pawlenty following through on a meaningful state contribution to a stadium. And he did sign a "no new taxes" pledge that specifically states that any new public monies expended have to come out of other existing resources. In other words, Pawlenty may not be serious about ponying up for a stadium for anyone.

More likely, he's courting the support of stadium boosters, knowing that he can blame local governments for not having enough revenue to deliver a stadium package. Or three.

"It's going to be interesting," Marty says. "Anything's possible, I guess, but I'd say at most [boosters] might be able to sucker the people into building two stadiums. But not three."

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