Stadium Wars: Back From the Dead

The ballpark deal that wouldn't die: After a decade of threats, insults, and doomsday scenarios, how did the Twins get the most Pohlad-friendly stadium plan yet?

In early March, Dann Dobson showed up for lunch and a little bull session with the Minneapolis Rotary Club at the top floor of the IDS building. Dobson, a self-described Wellstone Democrat who happens to lobby against stadium taxes, was asked to speak to roughly 120 Rotarians about the drawbacks of publicly funded stadiums. Also invited to speak that day was Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports, Inc., the company that owns the Twins.

In what Dobson recalls as a "casual, friendly" atmosphere, the two nominal opponents lunched together before taking to the dais. Dobson was struck by something Bell, Carl Pohlad's trusty advocate, said. Bell told those assembled, according to Dobson, that the team had not been negotiating in recent months with anyone to construct a stadium.

Dobson--who was working to thwart any stadium plans with state Rep. Phil Krinkie, an anti-tax Republican from Shoreview--returned to the Capitol with relief, thinking there was no way the Twins were pushing for a stadium this legislative session. "I told Krinkie, 'Let's let our guard down on this and focus on the Vikings stadium," Dobson recalls. Six weeks later, news outlets were reporting that a stadium agreement between the Twins and Hennepin County was a done deal.

"I don't want to say he lied, because I respect and have to work with Jerry," Dobson says now. "But I would say Jerry Bell was dishonest and disingenuous." (Bell counters Dobson's assertion by saying he declared the Twins weren't working on any legislation for a new ballpark.)

Dobson was caught off guard by the news, and he wasn't the only one. A good number of public officials, anti-stadium advocates, and interested citizens have been feeling ambushed by the news that the Twins are closer than ever since the Metrodome was built to getting a new stadium. Though the deal seemingly surfaced overnight, the reality is that the groundwork for this specific agreement had been laid more than a year earlier. And though ballpark politics were largely off radar when the legislature convened in January, representatives of the Twins and Hennepin County were busy negotiating under wraps by then.

Bell freely admits that the start-and-stop negotiations regarding a stadium were kept close to the vest. "Our previous stadium drives had been fruitless, with nine years of rejection," he says. "We all came to the same conclusion that we didn't want to bring anybody else in, whether it was the state, the governor, or Minneapolis or St. Paul, because even a leak would disrupt the deal," Bell says.

It's a sentiment that Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, the main elected architect of the deal, echoes. In January 2004, Opat led the charge for the county board to approve a stadium plan with Hennepin County bearing most of the financial load. At the time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty had assembled a stadium-screening task force, and several municipalities coughed up half-baked plans--none of which featured a site as available and attractive as Hennepin County's. When the legislative session ended with no stadium action, Opat approached the Twins. "We went to the Twins and said we wanted to do this site-specific," Opat says. "And there was no reason to involve anyone else until we had an agreement."

What followed was nearly a year of negotiations that involved fewer than 10 men. Aside from Bell and Opat, they included Twins president David St. Peter and Hennepin County budget director Dave Lawless. Two number-crunching consultants, Jim Ufer for the county and Bob Starkey for the Twins, were involved in the meetings, either at the Twins offices or the law firm of Ralph Strangis, a legal adviser to the Pohlads. Occasionally, Jim or Carl Pohlad was present. "Since the last session, we would meet, then go two months without talking at all," says Lawless. "Then in December and January, things started to get a little serious."

Even so, there were a number of sticking points for either side, and at some point Opat even considered any agreement dead in the water. Foremost among them, according to Lawless, was the team's financial solvency. The team had agreed to throw $40 million up-front, but as for the remaining $85 million, the county delegation wanted to know that money was available before construction started. At one point, there was talk of the Twins paying rent or opening a line of credit that the county could draw upon.

"We probably pushed too hard on that," Lawless says. The county also had concerns about the possibility that Pohlad might sell the team as soon as developers broke ground, what Lawless calls "significant concerns about parking," and a heated debate about who would pay for cost overruns. (The county eventually got a sale contingency, 1,200 parking spots in addition to the Target Center ramps, and stuck the Twins with cost overruns.)

For the Twins, the missing piece was who would pay for a retractable roof. The county balked, and the Twins were unwilling to add another $100 million to their $125 million contribution. Bell says the conventional fantasy was that the roof would be the state's contribution, but "it became apparent, to us at least, that the state wouldn't commit to that. We had to get comfortable with the fact that we weren't going to have a roof, and that was a hard leap. We told the owners that it wasn't necessarily an economic issue for us, but a fan issue. We have more than 20 years of fans who are used to no interruption of baseball because of weather. We decided that if we wanted the stadium, we'd have to reeducate our fans rather than hold out for roof money."

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