Saints Elsewhere

St. Paul Saints executive Bill Fanning says his team needs more parking, more toilets, and more comfortable seats for fans--and some skyboxes, too
Craig Lassig

While executives of the Minnesota Twins wring their hands about the economic plight of small-market teams, St. Paul Saints vice president and general manager Bill Fanning frets about something more basic: toilets. Midway Stadium, home field for the minor-league team, has a grand total of three women's restrooms, two of which have only two stalls.

Of the 6,329 aluminum seats at Midway, only the 3,500 reserved, $8 grandstand seats have backs. The adjacent parking lot holds only 550 cars. The outfield backs up to a railroad line, and the sound of freight trains frequently drowns out the announcers.

When the Saints moved into their current home for their 1993 debut, no one quite knew what to expect from the local return of minor-league baseball. It followed, then, that any venue would do. "When we got there it looked like a prison baseball stadium," recalls Fanning. "Look at our scoreboard," he says, pointing beyond left field, where the sign is listing badly. "This thing was built on a refuse dump and the thing sinks all the time."

But through ingenious marketing and between-inning amusements such as pig mascots and sumo wrestling, the Saints have infused Midway Stadium with a magical, down-home mystique. As a result, the club has sold out an impressive 203 consecutive games, including last week's home opener.

The Saints' hardy followers, Fanning avers, have suffered long enough in a substandard ballpark: "We don't like seeing our fans having to wait in line for three innings to buy concessions."

And so, as the team opens its 2001 season, the Northern League St. Paul Saints officially joined the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings, and maybe the Minnesota Gopher football team to become one of the local sports clubs lobbying for brand-new stadiums. What the team is envisioning, says Fanning, is a new 7,500-seat ballpark to open in 2003 on Harriet Island facing downtown St. Paul with more than 2,000 adjacent parking spaces, a grassy berm beyond the outfield where another 2,000 general admission fans could sit, and, in Fanning's dreams, 16 to 22 skyboxes. Early estimates are that such a park would cost $20 million to $25 million, not counting land-acquisition costs.

The Saints are part of the nine-year-old Northern League, which has 14 teams in two divisions. Of the eight teams in the Saints' Central Division, five play in new facilities (Fargo-Moorhead; Sioux City; Winnipeg; Schaumburg, Illinois; and Lincoln, Nebraska), while the Sioux Falls Canaries play in a recently renovated park, according to league president Dan Moushon. The expansion team in Nebraska, the Lincoln Saltdogs, starts playing in a brand-new $32 million stadium, complete with 16 sky suites, on June 1. The cost of the project was split between the city, the University of Nebraska, and the private company that belongs to the team's owner. Next season the league will add teams in Gary, Indiana, and Joliet, Illinois, and new stadiums are being built to house both teams.

"Everybody else has gotten new stadiums or improvements," says Fanning, echoing the pleas of his big-league counterparts. "And then you have Duluth and St. Paul." Duluth-Superior Dukes general manager John Dittrich says his club's current home, Wade Stadium, was built from paving bricks taken from a nearby street 60 years ago. "Some of the players call it 'the penitentiary'," he quips. "The newspaper here today used the term 'an acquired taste'." The team would love a new stadium, Dittrich adds, but, given the current sad state of the economy in northern Minnesota, he doesn't see it happening anytime soon.

Inevitably not everyone is convinced that the Saints need a new home. St. Paul City Council member Jay Benanav, whose Fourth Ward includes Midway Stadium, doesn't buy some of the team's pleas of hardship. "The parking issue is somewhat of a mystery to me," says Benanav, a mayoral candidate this year. "It's not like people aren't coming to the games."

Not surprisingly, the Midway Chamber of Commerce has taken an official position against the team's move and is putting together a task force to examine what could be done to keep the team at Midway. Fanning says that he welcomes those efforts, but he notes that the team has already rejected the idea of renovating Midway after getting a $10 million estimate for the project.

Julian Loscalzo runs Ballpark Tours, a group that takes summer trips to outdoor stadiums. He's a Saints season-ticket holder, but he's against building a new stadium for the same reasons he opposed a 1994 bid by Coleman to bring the team to the downtown riverfront. "The last time they floated this, we brought out our 'Save Midway Stadium' T-shirts, and it looks like we're going to have to do it again," he says. "They sound like any other major-league baseball team and it's kind of a shame. Next thing you know they'll want a retractable roof." Saints chairman Marvin Goldklang owns a piece of the New York Yankees and his group owns six minor-league teams, including the Saints. "They've become what they've tried to dispel," Loscalzo adds.

At $25 million, the proposed stadium's cost may be fraction of the $300 million price tag that's been tossed around most recently for a new stadium for the Twins, but both schemes have something in common: It isn't clear how the whole thing would be paid for.

Fanning says that the Saints are willing to kick in 50 percent to 60 percent of the construction cost from skybox, parking, and naming-rights revenue. He insists that the team doesn't want tax money to go into the project, and he suggests that one or more private developers could possibly fill the funding gap as part of a larger redevelopment on Harriet Island.

That funding gap, warns St. Paul Deputy Mayor Susan Kimberly, is hardly a trivial problem. "What can I say? There's something missing there," she says. "Our expectation conceptually is that the team can support the building, and that the public's probably going to have to come up with the site."

If the Saints are to achieve their goal of playing in a new stadium by 2003, Fanning and others in the club's front office need to hammer out a proposal with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman's office by this fall. Fanning and Kimberly say they are optimistic. But if Twins owner Carl Pohlad were talking, he'd probably call that mighty ambitious.

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