Stadium Wars: Back From the Dead

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."

For weeks, all these issues seemed destined to derail the deal. But at the beginning of March, according to Bell and Lawless, things heated up again, right around the time Bell told Dobson and the Rotarians there was no deal--no legislative deal, at least--in the works.



Going back to 1997, the Twins have
tried all sorts of strategies to get
legislative approval to build a taxpayer-financed stadium. Aside from repeated--and tarnishing--threats that the team would leave the state if a deal didn't happen, Twins reps have suffered a number of embarrassing setbacks. And the political opposition was not confined to the state legislature. In 1997, Pohlad and company failed to convince the public that the Twins were headed for North Carolina. At the same time, Minneapolis voters approved a referendum limiting the city's contribution to any stadium to $10 million. Backroom negotiations with former Gov. Arne Carlson were derailed that same year after his administration went public before the deal was sealed. This became well-publicized three years later when Jay Weiner's book Stadium Games came out.

Opat's involvement dates back to 2002, when, as chair of the county board, he made the stadium push a top priority. Opat went to the legislature to get authority for the county to help build a ballpark, and failed--thus the deal lawmakers approved had the effect of leaving St. Paul as the only viable candidate. In 2003, he made overtures to the Twins and at the Capitol that were coolly received. It cost him political clout: He lost his bid to be reelected board chairman. All along, Bell and the Twins were playing up all kinds of rivalries--St. Paul against Minneapolis, cities against counties, state lawmakers against local elected officials.

It's not hard to read the new strategy this time around. The Twins dealt mainly with one elected official, and it's notable that most of the negotiating occurred between Bell and Lawless, Hennepin County's budget official. If the negotiations were unusually quiet, they were also unusual for who was not involved: namely, any state legislators or mayors or even the governor. Bell has remarked that the first time he visited the Capitol this session was two weeks ago, and Lawless says the county contingent only traveled to St. Paul once or twice. (In fact, state records show a precipitous decline in recent Twins lobbying expenditures, from $960,000 in 2002 to $340,000 in 2004.)

"Bell was smart in that he found his one political ally willing to take the heat for this," says one Minneapolis observer. "Take the politics out of it, and you can get down to the business of dollars and cents."

In fact, if the two public hearings in front of the Hennepin County Board the last two weeks are reliable indicators, some of Opat's own board colleagues were kept in the dark as well. Two Republicans on the board, Penny Steele and Linda Koblick, repeatedly argued that they hadn't had time to read the proposal, that the details were too vague, and that the lack of public information, much less public input, amounted to tyranny. (Their complaints were shared by Commissioner Gail Dorfman, a Democrat, who joined Koblick and Steele in voting against the deal.)

But as Opat saw it, he had one bargaining chip: the four votes from last year that had approved the county proposal forwarded to Pawlenty's screening panel. The fact that the county had proposed a site essentially gave Opat and Lawless a green light. "A moment was a teleconference between us, Jim Pohlad, St. Peter, and some others, where they realized that we were talking real construction costs," Lawless recalls. "Then suddenly we were meeting twice a week."

Steele says that while she had the sense that Opat was still negotiating, she was unaware that things had come together so quickly. "I found out two days before it hit the paper," Steele says. "I was saying, 'Give me the rundown,' so I could take this to my constituents. I had no idea where we were coming from."  

Opat, for his part, says he did nothing to deceive the commissioners or anyone else. "I would disagree strongly that this was out of the public view," he argues. "I've been out in the open on this since 2002." He maintains that there was no point in updating anyone on the proceedings until every detail had been worked out. While Bell and the Twins felt negotiations had turned serious in the beginning of March, Opat and Lawless say they were still concerned about the Twins' cash flow and other financial issues such as the sale contingency. By early April, there was a silence that kept the deal from being finalized until three weeks ago.

"I felt I had started it," Opat says, "and I wanted to finish it."

In the end, all parties professed some dissatisfaction with the end result. And there's still a question as to whether the legislature will give final approval for Hennepin County to levy the sales tax--the county's only funding mechanism--without a referendum. Opat himself has argued that this is merely a proposal to take to state lawmakers, and that he expects many aspects of the agreement to change in deliberations at the Capitol. More than 50 people spoke at the public hearing last Tuesday in a session that lasted more than seven hours. Steele and Koblick have said that if the legislature approves some incarnation of the Bell/Opat deal, they'll take the issues up for further public hearing--with or without a referendum.

In the meantime, though, even critics are left to marvel over the effectiveness of the strategy this time out. "It's certainly a proposal that was looking at the landscape about what the governor has said about not raising taxes, and what the public is saying about budget cuts," Steele acknowledges. "They bypassed a lot of obstacles."

Even Dobson, who's seen his share of stadium ploys, notes that this one is formidable. "Needless to say, this is a huge departure," Dobson says. "I've got to give them an 'A' for getting something like this to the legislature."

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