Gopher Broke


On the final weekend of the recently concluded legislative session, Dean Johnson—the Senate majority leader from Willmar and the most powerful DFL lawmaker at the Capitol—grabbed the microphone and drew this rhetorical finger-painting: "Imagine, if you will, a Saturday afternoon in October, the University of Minnesota band marching over by the new stadium, playing the 'Minnesota Rouser,' and there are 50,000 people there getting ready as we are going to beat the Wisconsin Badgers. Can you get any better than that? And all the people across this state will be in their combines harvesting corn and soybeans, listening to the Gophers. I think it says something about our state."

What it says most clearly is that even theoretically reasonable politicians go soft-headed on the topic of public funding for big ballparks. Because if you simply substitute "Metrodome" for "new stadium," there is absolutely nothing in Johnson's dreamy description that wasn't already happening—and all that without Minnesota taxpayers forking over $10.25 million in general fund monies each of the next 25 years.

While most of the anti-stadium fervor this session was getting directed at the Twins and Carl Pohlad, the Gophers stadium project got a relative free pass from media and the public. Here are some things you should know about the other dubious stadium deal that went down at the Capitol last month:

There is no dedicated funding source for it in the state budget. The original Gophers stadium bill passed by the Senate would have imposed a 13 percent tax on sports memorabilia to pay for the public portion of the cost. But because that was unacceptable to Gov. Tim "No new taxes" Pawlenty and the Republican House, the final bill mandates that more than $10 million be taken from the general fund annually between now and 2031—some $256 million in all. That's the same pool of money the state uses to fund things such as education and health care.

University students, not fat-cat alums, are the ones obliged to pay. To generate part of the University of Minnesota's portion of the payment toward the Gophers stadium, students at the school will be assessed a fee of $12.50 per semester, or $25 per school year. Since the average U of M graduate completes her degree in five years, that's an average additional cost of $125 for a U diploma. (The fee will be phased in so current juniors and seniors won't have to pay for a stadium that won't be completed before they graduate.)

It may oblige the state to bear legal responsibility for potentially contaminated parkland. Two million dollars of the $10.25 million per annum in state payments toward the Gopher stadium bonds will serve to buy some control over a 2,840-acre parcel of land in Rosemount known as Umore Park. Under the terms of the stadium deal, the parcel—which was given to the U by the federal government—cannot be used for commercial or industrial development and must remain public parkland in perpetuity.

But here's the rub: There may be some contamination of the groundwater on the property as a result of munitions manufacturing on a nearby parcel of land decades ago. Currently the U is in negotiations with the feds to assess any potential damage and, if necessary, to determine who pays to clean it up. Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-St. Paul), who worked hard on crafting language to address this potential environmental dilemma, says she is "confident" that the feds will ultimately be held accountable for any damages they created. But, she cautions, "There is always a chance the state will be on the hook because of the way environmental law works—especially if we disturb and further any contamination that has already occurred."

Stadium proponents have lauded Umore Park as a chance to promote green space: On the House floor, stadium bill author Ron Abrams (R-Minnetonka) even likened the parcel to Central Park in New York City. But it was public land owned by the U before the stadium deal, and could have remained green space without the annual $2 million payments from state taxpayers, had the U chosen to keep it that way. Instead, the state is paying $50 million and assuming a risk of eventually being held liable for any environmental cleanup on the site.

It chooses commercialization over memorializing Minnesota veterans. The Senate's proposed memorabilia tax would have enabled the new Gophers stadium to reclaim the name of its long-demolished open-air predecessor, Veterans Memorial Stadium. Instead, the final bill enables TCF Bank to purchases naming rights to the building for a period of 25 years at a cost of $35 million. The ballpark thus will become only the fourth college football stadium in the country named after a corporation. The deal also enables TCF Bank to join its competitor, US Bank, in having a branch on campus. Tim Pawlenty and House Republicans boosted the TCF stake in the bill—a testament to the clout of recently retired CEO (and former Republican Party chair) Bill Cooper.

It sabotages the U's own academic priorities. Soon after he was appointed president of the University of Minnesota more than three years ago, Robert Bruininks declared that his abiding mission was to remake the U into one of the top three research institutions in the country. By almost all accounts, the current centerpiece of this long-range strategy is a proposal to establish a biomedical facilities authority, which in turn would spend $360 million in state general fund monies to construct five biomedical science buildings over the next decade.

The biomedical authority legislation passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 51-15. Even Rep. Abrams, the author of the Gopher stadium bill, acknowledged that biomedical facilities were a greater priority for the future health of the U than the stadium during the legislative session just ended. Yet despite the show of support, this obviously crucial bill stalled in the Republican House. Eventually, money for just one of the five biomedical buildings was approved.

Asked point blank if passage of the Gopher stadium bill affected the fate of the biomedical authority bill, the university's CFO, Richard Pfutzenreuter—who once worked as a fiscal analyst at the Capitol—replies, "Is there a great scorekeeper adding it all up? Yeah, there are smart people and they have many pressures for who does or doesn't get funds. It certainly played into the scheme. We had a stadium bill that was hanging there ready to go, and we wanted to get it out of the way so we could focus on academic issues. But is there a certain thinking that, 'What did MnSCU [the state college system apart from the U of M] get, compared to what did the U get?' Sure, it goes on. It would be foolish to think it doesn't."