Will Shill for Stadium

Hennepin County's plan to fund a new Twins park lets Minneapolis off the hook--on paper

One hallmark of the Pawlenty administration has been a fetish for government that functions more like corporate America. And he has certainly taken a page from their book of accounting tricks: His tax- and budget-slashing policies have essentially transferred tax burdens from the state to municipal and county governments, which now find themselves struggling for money to repair roads, care for the sick, fund public safety.

So it was surprising, in the midst of these budget upheavals, to see local governments throw fiscal caution to the wind last month by presenting plans for new stadiums to house the Twins, the Vikings, or the Gopher football team. By mid-January, the governor's Stadium Screening Committee was mulling over no fewer than 26 proposals for the upcoming legislative session, even though the call had gone out just weeks before. (For more information on how the stadium drama is unfolding at the state level, see Britt Robson's "Capitol Offenses," p. 17.)

In December, the Minneapolis City Council approved a plan that endorsed a specific site for a Twins stadium, the so-called Rapid Park property next to the city's garbage incinerator just north of Target Center. Though the council is mostly made up of first-termers who have expressed opposition in principle to any public stadium funding, the resolution passed 11-1. Notably, though, it contained no funding plan for the Rapid Park site. According to the dictates of a local referendum passed in 1997, the city of Minneapolis legally cannot spend a penny more than $10 million to fund any stadium project.

So the dirty work of finding the dollars was left to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, which agreed to "partner" with Minneapolis on the stadium issue. On January 13, the board stepped up to bear the financial brunt. Hennepin County--helped by the tight relationship between former board chair Mike Opat and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak--ponied up $308 million in its stadium plan. On paper, Minneapolis would be obliged to contribute only $7 million.

The proposal occasioned plenty of skepticism among board members. Peter McLaughlin, whose district includes central Minneapolis, offered several amendments to the original proposal, including one that stipulated the county would receive a share of the profits in the event the Pohlad family later chose to sell the Twins. Gail Dorfman, who also represents part of Minneapolis, pointed out that the county had cut $36 million in social services when the board finalized its budget just a month earlier. And Penny Steele, a Republican representing the western suburbs, cited a study that would rank the Hennepin County plan as the fourth-highest public contribution to a stadium in the country.

Even Opat admitted the county plan was "vague." But the board approved it 4-3 with some haste. In fact, Pawlenty had set up a competitive screening process that was all but impossible for any interested city or county to ignore. At the risk of losing the Twins to some hungrier Twin Cities municipality, Minneapolis and Hennepin County leaders had to make their best pitch. Lee Sheehy, head of the city's Community Planning and Economic Development department, says the idea was to get a "respectful response to the governor."

 

Every few years for most of the past decade, the stadium debate has reared its head again, and each time the public outcry has been so great that few politicians were willing to touch it. This time, however, elected officials seem to have embraced the idea of at least one new stadium with enthusiasm. The time is now, they say, despite the fact that no one--the state, the county or, most of all, the city---has extra money lying around.

So Minneapolis city leaders, not least Lee Sheehy, have wholeheartedly embraced the Hennepin County plan calling for $7 million from the city. But Ricky Rask, a longtime opponent of public funding for stadiums, views the agreement suspiciously. "They're gonna figure out a way to skirt that $10 million cap, just wait and see," says Rask, who helped spearhead the drive for the spending limit in 1997.

Rask's theory is that while the city will invest very little in the actual site, Minneapolis will spend money freely on development deals in the vicinity of the ballpark. Land in the north Warehouse District has become increasingly valuable in recent years, and Mayor R.T. Rybak has long talked about connecting the north side with downtown. As the Heritage Park residential development takes shape just northwest of the stadium site, city leaders have grown increasingly anxious to redevelop the small industrial area surrounding the prospective ballpark site.

"I'm telling you right now, they'll talk about putting in affordable housing, but it will end up being big fancy housing and upscale retail," Rask says. "By the time all is said and done, the city will be in for millions."

City Council President Paul Ostrow and 11th Ward council member Scott Benson are quick to dismiss Rask's notion, saying there's not enough political will on the council to provide amenities to the Twins or any other sports team. "I don't see that as our obligation," Benson says.

But Sheehy admits that the city wants to start developing the area. "We're not going to circumvent the cap," Sheehy insists. "The charter provision says what the charter provision says. We will comply with that."

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